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Much Ado about Masking

By Diana Major Spencer

Mercifully, Much Ado About Nothing ends happily. Otherwise, we might have a moral drama instead of a romantic comedy. No fewer than nine of its seventeen scenes entail overhearing, eavesdropping, or out-and-out spying–leading to confusion at best and at worst to tragedy. More troubling, perhaps (and more fun!), eleven scenes present deliberate falsehood, where characters hide truth behind physical masks, fictional plots, or emotional façades because the truth, for one reason or another reason, chafes the pretenders.

Two scenes require physical masks: first, the masked party celebrating the visit to Messina of the Prince and his companions and, last, the second wedding, where the women are veiled. At the “reveling,” characters in masks pretend to be other than themselves, mislead others verbally, or recognize their partner but pretend not to. Don Pedro, for example, woos Hero on behalf of Claudio (2.1.82 93), as the men have agreed in a prior scene. Second, Don John reports falsely to Claudio, whom he addresses as “Benedick,” that Don Pedro wants Hero for himself (2.1.158 60). Third, Beatrice heaps insults on Benedick, who pretends not to be himself, while she knows who he is, but pretends not to (2.1.119 47; all line references are from David Bevington, ed., The Necessary Shakespeare, New York: Addison-Wesley, 2002).

Closing this pair of brackets, the second wedding scene (5.4), where the women are masked to conceal their identities and a greatly humbled Claudio accepts his penance of a substitute bride, follows a carefully choreographed mourning scene. With a much darker tone than the party scene, Leonato proffers the hand of Hero, who then unmasks to the grateful astonishment of Claudio and the Prince. The general levity of the play resumes when Benedick asks which of the other masked women is Beatrice (5.4.71).

Meanwhile, we’ve encountered three fictions that replace truth with downright falsehood. First, Don John masks his villainy with the pretense of reconciliation with his brother: “I had rather be a canker in a hedge,” he says, “than a rose in his grace” (1.3.25 26). The Bastard’s friend Conrade challenges, “Can you make no use of your discontent?"(1.3.35). Borachio volunteers that he’s overheard the Prince agree to woo Hero for Claudio (1.3.57 60), prompting Don John’s vow to “cross” “that young start-up [who] hath all the glory of my overthrow” (1.3.63, 62 63).

Scene 2.2 reveals Borachio’s plot to discredit Hero’s honor and thus confound the marriage. The truth of Hero’s innocence is masked, according to Borachio’s confessions in various scenes, by darkness (“this very night [2.2.43]), distance (“the Prince [and] Claudio . . . saw afar off in the orchard this . . . encounter” [3.3.148 49]), disguise (“Margaret in Hero’s garments” [5.1.232 33]), and deceit ("[My] master knew she was Margaret; and partly by his oaths, . . . but chiefly by my villainy, . . . did confirm [the] slander” [3.3.52 56]).

The second–and most concentrated and enjoyable–of the fictional plots follows Don Pedro’s declaration that “in the interim” before the marriage, he will “undertake one of Hercules’s labors, . . . to bring Signor Benedick and the Lady Beatrice into a mountain of affection th’ one with th’ other” (2.1.347 50). Often considered the centerpiece of the play, the delicious back-to-back entrapment scenes accomplish Don Pedro’s goal, which is interrupted and complicated before fruition by the third fiction, Hero’s “death.”

Ironically preceded by the incoherent visit of Dogberry and Verges and their accusation of Borachio and Conrade, which could have prevented the tragedy altogether, the wedding scene features Claudio’s refusal of Hero on grounds of intemperance and sensuality. Hero swoons in the presence of Don Pedro, Claudio, and Don John, but revives only after they’ve slithered off. Because “your daughter here the princes left for dead,” suggests the Friar, “let her awhile be secretly kept in, / And publish it that she is dead indeed” (4.1.202 204). Leonato and Antonio perpetuate the deceit in 5.1, when Don Pedro and Claudio wander into their brotherly commiseration. The old men challenge the young, saying, “Thou hast killed my child” (Leonato, 5.1.78) and “God knows I loved my niece / And she is dead, slandered to death by villains” (Antonio, 5.1.87 88). They continue the pretense through the mourning scene and the veiled wedding.

The final “masks,” the façades, pertain primarily to Beatrice and Benedick and the emotional masks they’ve worn. We don’t know their past, but Shakespeare makes it clear that they had one: By the fortieth line of the play, for example, Beatrice complains that Benedick “set up his bills here in Messina and challenged Cupid at the flight [i.e., Benedick challenged Cupid to a long-distance archery contest by posting flyers]; and my uncle’s fool [i.e., I, Beatrice], reading the challenge, subscribed for Cupid and challenged him at the bird-bolt [took Cupid’s part and accepted the challenge]” (1.1.37 40). Leonato explains a few lines later, “There is a kind of merry war betwixt Signor Benedick and her. They never meet but there’s a skirmish of wit between them” (1.1.57 60). Still later, Beatrice confesses to Don Pedro, “Indeed my lord, [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; therefore Your Grace may well say I have lost it” (2.1.265 68).

The apparently disappointed Beatrice shields herself behind her inimitable barbed wit, and Benedick boasts that he has sworn off women forever. Yet their respective façades seem transparent to their acquaintances, as witnessed by the enthusiasm with which Don Pedro, Leonato, and all their friends and households expose the “wouldn’t-be” lovers to their true feelings during the orchard scenes.

Once their façades are breached, they become champions of truth: Beatrice immediately defends Hero against her accusers and resists Benedick’s tentative words of love until he proves himself worthy. She utters the most honest line in the play: “Kill Claudio!” (4.1.288), and Benedick passes the test: To prove his love, he agrees (4.1.330 32), and indeed challenges Claudio, who, along with the Prince, fails to recognize Benedick’s unmasked persona and continues to tease him about being in love (5.1.158 81). Even after Benedick stomps off, they think he’s merely misguided (5.1.191 201).

What a mess of misinformation! Left to themselves, the aristocrats would complicate themselves to death with falsehood and tragedy. But Shakespeare has given us the constabulary, so incapable of pretense that they execute the one entirely truthful scene: their accidental apprehension of Borachio and Conrade (3.3). Later, their accidental encounter with Don Pedro and Claudio with the villains in tow (5.1.202 52) discloses Hero’s innocence and Don John’s treachery. Thanks to their bumbling, and no thanks to their “betters,” truth can finally triumph, along with love and happy endings.

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