Themes are the fundamental and often universal ideas explored in a literary work.
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
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.
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.
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.
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”
For men, on the other hand, honor depended on male friendship alliances and was more military in nature. Unlike a woman, a man could defend his honor, and that of his family, by fighting in a battle or a duel. Beatrice urges Benedick to avenge Hero’s honor by dueling to the death with Claudio. As a woman, Hero cannot seize back her honor, but Benedick can do it for her via physical combat.