By Elaine P. Pearce
Much Ado about Nothing is a play of contrasts: contrasts in language, contrasts in public situations, and contrasts in private identities. This continual balancing of opposites ultimately creates a unified, harmonious work. The language of Much Ado about Nothing is precise yet elegant, carefully crafted yet gently flowing. It “dances with dexterities of antithesis, in meaning, tone, and colour. . . . Beatrice's exchanges with Benedick or Benedick's with the love-struck Claudio are virtuoso pointings of contrasting tenets” (Introduction, A. R. Humphreys, Much Ado about Nothing, [London and New York: Methuen, 1981], 28; all line references are to this edition).
Asked his opinion of beautiful Hero, Benedick tells Claudio that he thinks Hero is “too low for a high praise, too brown for a fair praise, and too little for a great praise” (1.1.159–61). “Claudio's own pleasantest speech is devotedly alert with [contrasts]: ‘Silence is the perfectest herald of joy; I were but little happy, if I could say how much. Lady, as you are mine, I am yours; I give away myself for you and dote upon the exchange’ (2.1.288–91)” (Humphreys 28). Other instances occur throughout the play. For example, the rebellious Don John declares, “I had rather be a canker in a hedge than a rose in his grace” (1.3.25–6) when referring to his brother, Don Pedro, and says of Claudio, “If I can cross him any way, I bless myself every way” (1.3.63–64).
Against this backdrop of reverberating antithesis, other contrasts abound in both individuals and society as a whole. The major male characters have just returned from war, in which they were victorious and relatively unscathed, to the predominantly peaceful kingdom of Messina. Now the energy used in war is turned to love. Which is not to say that peace reigns, just that the battles change. While the military skirmishes were fought and fraught with disaffection, Beatrice and Benedick's wit combat has the obvious basis in long standing affection. Benedick believes that Beatrice exceeds Hero “as much in beauty as the first of May doth the last of December” (1.1.178–79). His interest in her seems apparent when, vexed by her insults, he storms, “I would not marry her, though she were endowed with all that Adam had left him before he transgressed” (2.1.234–36), suggesting the idea of marrying her must have crossed his mind before despite his earlier assurances that he would remain a bachelor. Beatrice confides in Don Pedro that before the war Benedick lent his heart to “me awhile, and I gave him use for it, a double heart for his single one. Marry, once before he won it of me with false dice” (2.1.261–64).
Each of them has conflicting desires. Benedick wants to be a bachelor and remain in male society. But he is also attracted by Beatrice and has thought of marrying her. Unsuccessful in love, Beatrice cannot imagine a suitable suitor and hides her disappointment in wit and humor. Beatrice and Benedick have been criticized for their sudden conversion from foes to friends. However, it is not a conversion. Like dancers at the ball, they were merely masked, each fearful of rejection. Once each knows the other's love, they can admit their own. After hearing of Benedick's love, Beatrice exclaims, “Stand I condemn'd for pride and scorn so much? . . . Benedick, love on, I will requite thee” (3.1.108, 111). And Benedick swears, “I will be horribly in love with her. . . . When I said I would die a bachelor, I did not think that I should live till I were married” (2.3.226–27, 234–35).
Claudio's transformation from soldier to lover seems decidedly more awkward. Back from the war, with nothing more pressing at hand, he feels empowered to pursue love in the form of Hero. Don Pedro, the leader in war, assumes a new role as director of revels, moving from the realities of war to the games of love. The practical man of action, he volunteers to disguise himself to woo and win Hero for Claudio, obtain her father's approval, and hasten the day of Claudio's marriage. Don Pedro and Claudio have replaced their weapons of war with words of love, but one senses that the game is much the same, to conquer the opposition. To pass the time before Claudio and Hero's wedding, Don Pedro devises the plan to bring Benedick and Beatrice “into a mountain of affection th'one with th'other. . . . Cupid is no longer an archer; his glory shall be ours, for we are the only love-gods” (2.1.344, 362–64).
Throughout the play, characters are caught up in the games of love. They try on different public and personal faces as they move toward becoming more truly themselves. Claudio changes from being a soldier to a lover (a role he does not play well) and back to a soldier. He has been seen as shallow and undeserving. However, his actions can be easily explained. First, he is young and inexperienced in love. He was attracted to Hero before he went to war, but he had very little interaction with her, nor does he increase it. He does not even woo her for himself, but allows Don Pedro, his social superior and his military commander, to do that for him. He believes Don John when he claims that Don Pedro has wooed Hero for himself even though he knows Don Pedro was wooing Hero for him. Hurt, he petulantly disavows his love for Hero. He does not learn from this slip, but again believes Don John's allegation that Hero is not pure. Granted, he “sees” her talking to another man at night from her window, but he does not recognize that the woman is really Margaret, not Hero. He really does not seem to know her at all. Without knowing her, how can he love her? In his anger, he reverts to soldier, determined to attack back, to shame and punish her. He has no regrets, feels no remorse when he believes she is dead, and takes no responsibility when told it is his fault. Despite his desire to grow up and move from soldier to the more socially and personally integrated role of husband, he appears unequal to the task.
This contrasts with Benedick. His love for Beatrice is greater than his affection for his comrade. He would “not for the wide world” (4.1.288) challenge Claudio, but he eventually agrees to do Beatrice's bidding, to “Kill Claudio” (4.1.287). Benedick must match Beatrice's image of a man. He must take action to right a wrong. If Beatrice were a man, she “would eat Claudio's heart in the market-place” (4.1.305–306). She regrets that “manhood is melted into curtsies, valour into compliment, and men are only turned into tongue, and trim ones too: he is now as valiant as Hercules that only tells a lie and swears it” (4.1.317–21). She laments, “I cannot be a man with wishing, therefore I will die a woman with grieving (4.1.321–23).
To paraphrase Friar Laurence in Romeo and Juliet, people, like plants, have opposing characteristics, yet they are ultimately ruled by the qualities that are predominant. Beatrice, Benedick, and Claudio's internal conflicts are eventually resolved. Beatrice abandons her pride but not her spirit, Benedick softens his bravado, and Claudio becomes a bit more mature. The contrasts—in language, social conventions, and individual traits—combine to create a balanced, unified society, the natural end of a comedy, but more importantly, they combine to form characters who understand themselves better, who will live together more peacefully (the war is finally over), and who grow beyond their controversies to a true understanding.