Motifs are recurring structures, contrasts, and literary devices that can help to develop and inform the text’s major themes.
Even though Hero is ultimately vindicated, her public
shaming at the wedding ceremony is too terrible to be ignored. In
a sense, this kind of humiliation incurs more damage to her honor
and her family name than would an act of unchaste behavior—an transgression
she never commits. The language that both Claudio and Leonato use
to shame Hero is extremely strong. To Claudio she is a “rotten orange”
Shame is also what Don John hopes will cause Claudio to lose his place as Don Pedro’s favorite: once Claudio is discovered to be engaged to a loose woman, Don John believes that Don Pedro will reject Claudio as he rejected Don John long ago. Shame is a form of social punishment closely connected to loss of honor. A product of an illegitimate sexual coupling himself, Don John has grown up constantly reminded of his own social shame, and he will do anything to right the balance. Ironically, in the end Don John is shamed and threatened with torture to punish him for deceiving the company. Clearly, he will never gain a good place in courtly society.
In Shakespeare’s time, the “Nothing” of the title would
have been pronounced “Noting.” Thus, the play’s title could read:
“Much Ado About Noting.” Indeed, many of the players participate
in the actions of observing, listening, and writing, or noting.
In order for a plot hinged on instances of deceit to work, the characters
must note one another constantly. When the women manipulate Beatrice
into believing that Benedick adores her, they conceal themselves
in the orchard so that Beatrice can better note their conversation.
Since they know that Beatrice loves to eavesdrop, they are sure
that their plot will succeed: “look where Beatrice like a lapwing
runs / Close by the ground to hear our conference,” notes Hero (III.i.
Don John’s plot to undo Claudio also hinges on noting: in order for Claudio to believe that Hero is unchaste and unfaithful, he must be brought to her window to witness, or note, Margaret (whom he takes to be Hero) bidding farewell to Borachio in the semidarkness. Dogberry, Verges, and the rest of the comical night watch discover and arrest Don John because, although ill-equipped to express themselves linguistically, they overhear talk of the Margaret--Borachio staging. Despite their verbal deficiencies, they manage to capture Don John and bring him to Leonato, after having had the sexton (a church official) “note” the occurrences of the evening in writing. In the end, noting, in the sense of writing, unites Beatrice and Benedick for good: Hero and Claudio reveal love sonnets written by Beatrice and Benedick, textual evidence that notes and proves their love for one another.
From the witty yet plaintive song that Balthasar sings
about the deceitfulness of men to the masked ball and the music
and dancing at the end of the play, the characters of Much
Ado About Nothing spend much of their time engaging in
elaborate spectacles and entertainments. The play’s title encapsulates
the sentiment of effervescent and light court entertainment: the
two hours’ traffic onstage will be entertaining, comic, and absorbing.
The characters who merrily spar and fall in love in the beginning
will, of course, end up together in the conclusion. Beatrice compares
courtship and marriage to delightful court dances: “wooing, wedding
and repenting is as a Scotch jig, a measure, and a cinquepace” (II.i.
The idea of counterfeiting, in the sense of presenting
a false face to the world, appears frequently throughout the play.
A particularly rich and complex example of counterfeiting occurs
as Leonato, Claudio, and Don Pedro pretend that Beatrice is head
over heels in love with Benedick so that the eavesdropping Benedick
will overhear it and believe it. Luring Benedick into this trap,
Leonato ironically dismisses the idea that perhaps Beatrice counterfeits
her desire for Benedick, as he and the others counterfeit this love
themselves: “O God! Counterfeit? There was never counterfeit of
passion came so near the life of passion as she discovers it” (II.iii.
Another, more serious reference to counterfeiting occurs at the wedding ceremony, as Claudio rhetorically paints a picture of Hero as a perfect counterfeit of innocence, unchaste and impure beneath a seemingly unblemished surface:
Hero’s supposed counterfeiting is of a grave nature, as it threatens her womanly reputation. It is not her emotions that are being misconstrued, as with Beatrice, but rather her character and integrity.