Themes are the fundamental and often universal ideas explored in a literary work.
The Ideal of Social Grace
The characters’ dense, colorful manner of speaking represents the ideal that Renaissance courtiers strove for in their social interactions. The play’s language is heavily laden with metaphor and ornamented by rhetoric. Benedick, Claudio, and Don Pedro all produce the kind of witty banter that courtiers used to attract attention and approval in noble households. Courtiers were expected to speak in highly contrived language but to make their clever performances seem effortless. The most famous model for this kind of behavior is Baldassare Castiglione’s sixteenth-century manual The Courtier, translated into English by Thomas Hoby in 1561. According to this work, the ideal courtier masks his effort and appears to project elegance and natural grace by means of what Castiglione calls sprezzatura, the illusion of effortlessness. Benedick and his companions try to display their polished social graces both in their behavior and in their speech.
The play pokes fun at the fanciful language of love that courtiers used. When Claudio falls in love, he tries to be the perfect courtier by using intricate language. As Benedick notes: “His words are a very fantastical banquet, just so many strange dishes” (II.iii.18–19). Although the young gallants in the play seem casual in their displays of wit, they constantly struggle to maintain their social positions. Benedick and Claudio must constantly strive to remain in Don Pedro’s favor. When Claudio silently agrees to let Don Pedro take his place to woo Hero, it is quite possible that he does so not because he is too shy to woo the woman himself, but because he must accede to Don Pedro’s authority in order to stay in Don Pedro’s good favor. When Claudio believes that Don Pedro has deceived him and wooed Hero not for Claudio but for himself, he cannot drop his polite civility, even though he is full of despair. Beatrice jokes that Claudio is “civil as an orange,” punning on the Seville orange, a bitter fruit (II.i.256). Claudio remains polite and nearly silent even though he is upset, telling Benedick of Don Pedro and Hero: “I wish him joy of her” (II.i.170). Clearly, Claudio chooses his obedience to Don Pedro over his love for Hero.
Claudio displays social grace, but his strict adherence to social propriety eventually leads him into a trap. He abandons Hero at the wedding because Don John leads him to believe that she is unchaste (marriage to an unchaste woman would be socially unacceptable). But Don John’s plan to unseat Claudio does not succeed, of course, as Claudio remains Don Pedro’s favorite, and it is Hero who has to suffer until her good reputation is restored.
Deception as a Means to an End
The plot of Much Ado About Nothing is based upon deliberate deceptions, some malevolent and others benign. The duping of Claudio and Don Pedro results in Hero’s disgrace, while the ruse of her death prepares the way for her redemption and reconciliation with Claudio. In a more lighthearted vein, Beatrice and Benedick are fooled into thinking that each loves the other, and they actually do fall in love as a result. Much Ado About Nothing shows that deceit is not inherently evil, but something that can be used as a means to good or bad ends.
In the play, it is sometimes difficult to distinguish between good and bad deception. When Claudio announces his desire to woo Hero, Don Pedro takes it upon himself to woo her for Claudio. Then, at the instigation of Don John, Claudio begins to mistrust Don Pedro, thinking he has been deceived. Just as the play’s audience comes to believe, temporarily, in the illusions of the theater, so the play’s characters become caught up in the illusions that they help to create for one another. Benedick and Beatrice flirt caustically at the masked ball, each possibly aware of the other’s presence yet pretending not to know the person hiding behind the mask. Likewise, when Claudio has shamed and rejected Hero, Leonato and his household “publish” that Hero has died in order to punish Claudio for his mistake. When Claudio returns, penitent, to accept the hand of Leonato’s “niece” (actually Hero), a group of masked women enters and Claudio must wed blindly. The masking of Hero and the other women reveals that the social institution of marriage has little to do with love. When Claudio flounders and asks, “Which is the lady I must seize upon?” he is ready and willing to commit the rest of his life to one of a group of unknowns (V.iv.53). His willingness stems not only from his guilt about slandering an innocent woman but also from the fact that he may care more about rising in Leonato’s favor than in marrying for love. In the end, deceit is neither purely positive nor purely negative: it is a means to an end, a way to create an illusion that helps one succeed socially.
The Importance of Honor
The aborted wedding ceremony, in which Claudio rejects Hero, accusing her of infidelity and violated chastity and publicly shaming her in front of her father, is the climax of the play. In Shakespeare’s time, a woman’s honor was based upon her virginity and chaste behavior. For a woman to lose her honor by having sexual relations before marriage meant that she would lose all social standing, a disaster from which she could never recover. Moreover, this loss of honor would poison the woman’s whole family. Thus, when Leonato rashly believes Claudio’s shaming of Hero at the wedding ceremony, he tries to obliterate her entirely: “Hence from her, let her die” (IV.i.153). Furthermore, he speaks of her loss of honor as an indelible stain from which he cannot distance himself, no matter how hard he tries: “O she is fallen / Into a pit of ink, that the wide sea / Hath drops too few to wash her clean again” (IV.i.138–140). For women in that era, the loss of honor was a form of annihilation.