Bringing Deformed Forth

Engendering Meaning in Much Ado About Nothing



  1. It has been epigrammatically remarked by a modern historian surveying the cultural achievements of the Elizabethan age that Much Ado About Nothing lives up to its title (Durant 1961, 92). While the comment was in no sense intended to be a laudatory one, there is a respect in which it brings into focus what might not inappropriately be described as the 'philosophical' dimension of a work that is perhaps too easily dismissed as a mere bagatelle unworthy of serious consideration. As the title might be taken to intimate, this is a play 'about' what it means to be about anything. It is a play about the interpretation of events, about the difficulty of correlating sign and significance, about the pitfalls inherent in the construction of meaning. Although issues of a similar order come to the fore whenever the trajectory of dramatic action is in some way determined by the significance attributed to signs--whether these be as seemingly trivial as Othello's handkerchief or as obviously portentous as Hamlet's ghost--in Much Ado the problem is radicalised by reducing the sign quite literally to pure cipher. The title of the work thus encapsulates what is perhaps its most suggestive feature, that what the complex machinery of the comedy revolves around in the final analysis is nothing other than the nothing that lies at its core, a non-event or aporia that paradoxically becomes the centre of significance in the play.

  2. From the point of view at least of the 'serious' strand in the plot, that comprising the vicissitudes of Claudio and Hero, the non-event to which the title of the play alludes is very obviously the liaison unjustly imputed to Hero. As A. R. Humphreys implies, until the suspicion of Hero's infidelity is implanted in Claudio's susceptible mind by Don John nothing occurs between the two young people that is in the least degree memorable (Humphreys 1981, 61). Once again it is to the forces of evil, in this case incarnated in the saturnine figure of Don John, that we have to be grateful for rescuing the world from utter blandness--condemning it into everlasting redemption, as Dogberry might say (IV.ii.53-4). 1 Except in the light of Don John's dark intrigues, the mechanics of the process by which Hero is betrothed to Claudio appear--at least on the surface--little calculated to inspire any serious interest in anyone who is not a social historian or cultural anthropologist. Claudio is a callow boor scarcely emerged from adolescence, Hero a virtual mute who seems in the early part of the play to take so little interest in her own destiny that she might be suspected of being under the influence of soporifics. Don Pedro's genial benevolence creaks like rusty armour, and the repartee of Benedick and Beatrice, however effervescent in itself, is insufficiently compelling to justify the existence of an entire play. What energises the comedy, invests it with momentum, confers upon it an archetypal structure and at least a semblance of emotional authenticity, is Claudio's suddenly inculcated conviction that Hero has a lover, something that we know to be utterly false. The much ado that proceeds from this nothing is the raison d'être and very substance of Shakespeare's play: without that nothing, there would be no play.

  3. Claudio's belief in Hero's faithlessness is of course a construction, or rather a misconstruction, insinuated into him by the malicious Don John. It is Don John who reports to Claudio and Don Pedro that Hero is having an affair, and he who stage-manages an elaborate charade featuring his own henchman Borachio and an unwitting stand-in for Hero to lend credence to this fiction. Perhaps the most significant thing to be noted in connection with this deception is that the spectator does not witness the crucial scene in which Claudio overhears the counterfeit exchanges between Margaret and Borachio that persuade him of Hero's guilt. We learn of this episode only at second hand, when Borachio boasts of his exploit in the hearing of the Watch: 'I tell this tale vilely--I should first tell thee how the Prince, Claudio, and my master, planted and placed and possessed by my master Don John, saw afar off in the orchard this amiable encounter' (III.iii.143-7). What must be assumed to have been a supremely critical event is thus placed at a strategic remove from the audience, apprehended only at a distance as a 'tale', already the product of secondary elaboration. One consequence of this is that in a certain sense the situation of the audience is assimilated to that of the Watch on the stage, obliged to rely on report for whatever information it possesses. To put the matter slightly differently, what we are dealing with is a kind of palimpsest consisting in superimposed strata of observation. The spectator of the play watches the Watch watching Borachio while the latter narrates what he calls his tale relating how Claudio was inveigled into watching an artificial scene enacting Don John's fiction. Once again, what lies at the heart of this convoluted recursive machinery is a nothing (a nocturnal tryst between Hero and Borachio that has never in fact taken place) which swells into something only in consequence of conditioned interpretation, on the one hand, and theatrical elaboration, on the other. 2

  4. Counterpointed against this potentially tragic plot, revolving around a drama of groundless jealousy which anticipates those of Othello, Posthumous, and Leontes, is the amicable conspiracy whereby Benedick and Beatrice are manoeuvred into wedlock despite their proclaimed repugnance both for matrimony and for each other. In this case too the plot depends crucially on overhearing, since both parties are duped into listening to factitious reports concerning the sentiments of their counterparts. Like Claudio, they think they are eavesdropping, when in fact they are merely assisting at charades that have been contrived for the specific purpose of deceiving them. In this case too, nothing (the non-existent mutual passion of Benedick and Beatrice) is transformed into something through processes of interpretative and theatrical elaboration.

  5. At least on one level, then, what unifies the two interwoven plots is, as A. P. Rossiter points out, their common dependency upon hearsay (Rossiter 1961, 68), although in view of the frequency with which both the word and the idea recur perhaps the term Report would be more to the purpose. The action of the play proceeds not from empirically observable events with unequivocal meanings but from eavesdropping, narrative descriptions, 'tales', accounts and accounts of accounts. There is more involved in this than a dramatic mechanism alone, a mere device through which the plot is advanced. There are few events in the play that do not occur at one or more removes from the reality--or rather the non-reality, the nothing--that technically motivates them. The gap between the initiating event that turns out not to be an event at all, and the 'real' events that we witness on the stage, is bridged by processes of verbal mediation and cumulative elaboration. If watching and overhearing comprise the primary mechanisms of the play, a secondary mechanism consists in construing what has been seen or heard, while a tertiary mechanism consists in exploiting the disjunction between interpretation and event to perpetrate a deception--whether that deception be the malevolent one practised on Claudio by Don John, the amiable one practised on Benedick and Beatrice by their friends, or the redemptive one practised by the Friar who allows it to be given out that Hero is dead (Henze 1971).

  6. Although it might be concluded, in view of the sheer magnitude and egregiousness of Claudio's error, that individuals should assume responsibility for their own interpretations rather than relying on hearsay, the play makes it abundantly clear that there is no escaping the toils of report and interpretation. 3 The opening scene of the comedy constitutes among other things an extended demonstration of the inevitability of mediated knowledge, and of the risk that is consequently incurred of falling victim to the disparity between reality and discourse. Knowledge is necessarily second hand, never direct but filtered through a complex array of cultural mechanisms, less a product of individual inference than a collective construct. Almost the personification of the principle of mediation is the messenger with whom Leonato converses in the opening lines of the play, who has arrived in Messina to announce the approach of Don Pedro. At the conclusion of the play, interestingly enough, it is through a messenger that we learn the news of Don John's arrest, the penultimate line of the play being delivered by this character as the second line has been delivered either by the same individual or by someone functionally equivalent to him. 4 The use of a messenger to convey essential information in summary form is a familiar stage-convention, of course, and not in the least unusual in itself. But precisely because the audience recognises and acquiesces in the convention, it is implicated in the problem of knowledge that is tacitly invoked, absorbed into the selfsame processes of mediation that propel the play almost to the brink of disaster. 5 As occurs at several other junctures of the play as well, the audience is compelled to participate vicariously in the epistemological quandary which comes perilously near to ruining the lives of the major characters.

  7. It is from a letter delivered to him by the messenger that Leonato learns of the special favour in which Claudio is held by his Prince, the messenger informing his audience that this privileged status is the consequence of the young man's conspicuous virtues as a soldier (I.i.11-14). At least initially, there would seem to be little in this calculated to arouse serious misgivings. But when the messenger adds that 'he hath indeed better bettered expectation than you must expect of me to tell you how' (I.i.14-16) a rift appears between report and reality: whether because of some essential inadequacy in the nature of discourse, or simply because of the reticence or sheer perversity of the teller, report proves to be incommensurate with its object. The problematic character of the relation between events and the meanings that are to be attributed to them becomes even more evident when the messenger relates that Claudio's uncle has responded to the news of his nephew's approach with the outward tokens of grief, his delight being of such intensity that 'joy could not show itself modest enough without a badge of bitterness' (I.i.20-22). There being on this occasion a manifest discontinuity between the visible symptom and its presumed cause, the sign conveying in this case a meaning contrary to that customarily associated with it, what is to all intents and purposes an act of interpretation is required in order to elicit from a phenomenon what must be supposed to be its true significance. In this particular instance no difficulties would seem to arise, because it is to be assumed that Claudio's uncle is genuinely delighted at the news of his nephew's imminent arrival, and that his tears must therefore be expressive of joy and not of its opposite. Nonetheless the problem of correlating sign and significance is there, if only in latent form, waiting to explode with lethal impact in another context.

  8. The play continues to insist on the precariousness of the relation between sign and meaning. The assumption shared by all of the dramatis personae is that signs signify: the question is what do they signify, who is empowered to arbitrate meaning, and what is to be identified as a sign in the first place. Although Claudio believes that Don Pedro is in a position to 'know love's grief by his complexion' (I.i.293), Benedick has pointed out that even those physiological indices that common wisdom deems to be least ambiguous in their import can in fact be deceiving. When Don Pedro tells Benedick that 'I shall see thee, ere I die, look pale with love' (I.i.229), Benedick replies:

    With anger, with sickness, or with hunger, my lord, not with love: prove that ever I lose more blood with love than I will get again with drinking, pick out mine eyes with a ballad-maker's pen and hang me up at the door of a brothel-house for the sign of blind Cupid. (I.i.230-35)

    As such remarks as these suggest, Benedick is fascinated by the mobility and mutability of signs, by their liability to distortion of every kind. When he is reminded of the adage that 'In time the savage bull doth bear the yoke' (I.i.241-2), he comments:

    The savage bull may; but if ever the sensible Benedick bear it, pluck off the bull's horns and set them in my forehead, and let me be vilely painted, and in such great letters as they write, 'Here is good horse to hire,' let them signify under my sign, 'Here you may see Benedick, the married man.' (I.i.243-48)

    Signifying under signs is precisely what, in one way or another, most of the characters are about in this play. This activity might assume the comparatively innocuous form of simple wordplay, in which the disjunction between sign and signification is exploited for exclusively humorous effect. The characters who indulge in such verbal manoeuvring refuse to take words at what is conventionally accepted to be their face value, but conscript them instead into the service of what one character, responding to a particularly gross flight of linguistic misinterpretation, refers to as 'illegitimate construction' (III.iv.46). Irritated at Beatrice's unseemly adroitness in the art of verbal manipulation, Benedick accuses her of being 'a rare parrot-teacher' (I.i.128), of trafficking in words vacant of meaning, of 'fright[ening] the word out of his right sense' (V.ii.52). Even by her own friends Beatrice is criticised for her seemingly inexhaustible predilection for negative construction, there being no man so replete with virtue but that 'she would spell him backward' (III.i.61). And what these characters do knowingly in their battles of wit, they do inadvertently when their interpretation of words and events is determined by their perception of reality. Once he has been persuaded that Beatrice is in love with him even the sensible Benedick falls into the trap, imagining even her most hostile utterances to be throbbing with undeclared passion. Thus it is that when on one occasion she says that it is against her will that she is inviting him in to dinner, he reflects that 'there's a double meaning in that' (II.iii.249), and proceeds to read into her words the sense most consistent with his new conception of things.

  9. Shakespeare's pervasive sense of the fluidity of words, as of signs in general, has been subjected to extensive treatment on the part of critics, who have drawn attention to the manner in which this linguistic scepticism informs the wordplay which is one of the hallmarks of the playwright's drama (Mahood 1957, Elam 1984). Even the most thoroughgoing corrupters of words, to use Feste's phrase, 6 whether they be clowns or madmen or villains, do not so much assail language from without as actualise defects already latent in language and in signification at large. And yet it is precisely of words, mutable and unstable and subject to infinite manipulation though they may be, that Report consists, and on which all human beings are--in their different ways and degrees--dependent for their vision of the world. Perhaps in consequence of his youth and inexperience, which renders him even less capable than most of deciphering signs on his own account, Claudio reflects in exceptionally acute form the universal human predicament of being inextricably reliant upon socially mediated knowledge. This tendency appears in the first words he utters in the play, when, after encountering Hero, he immediately appeals to Benedick for his impression of the girl. To give credit where credit is due, Benedick is candid in acknowledging that his assessment will inevitably be a relative one that depends for its tenor on the particular persona he is assuming at any given moment: 'Do you question me as an honest man should do, for my simple true judgement; or would you have me speak after my custom, as being a professed tyrant to their sex?' (I.i.154-7). But Claudio apparently does not take his friend's warning to heart, and it is because of his uncritical dependency upon the interpretations of others that he proves to be vulnerable to the insinuations of Don John.

  10. Don John begins to spin the web of his intrigue in the scene of the masked ball. Don Pedro, informed of Claudio's love for Hero, has promised that he will introduce himself as Claudio and court Hero on the other's behalf. It is not explained why Claudio should not undertake his own wooing, but this is only one of a number of things that are not explained in this play. On one level, the Prince's gesture of wooing Hero by proxy is consistent with the concern with mediated experience which informs all aspects of this play, a theme which is introduced with the figure of the messenger delivering his report in the first scene, and which receives what is perhaps its most disconcerting statement when Beatrice demands that Benedick kill Claudio on her behalf (IV.i.288). It is reliance upon such mediation, whereby things and words and individuals function not in direct relation with the world but in a representational capacity, that opens up the possibility of misapprehension, whether this be accidental or deliberately induced. On this particular occasion Don John, feigning to mistake Claudio for Benedick, informs him that Don Pedro is actually wooing Hero on his own account, the identical set of actions being susceptible to this construction as well. Claudio concludes that he has been betrayed, and even manages to communicate his suspicions to Benedick, clarification coming only when Don Pedro announces that he has secured both Hero's assent and her father's consent on behalf of his young friend.

  11. The dance scene provides a kind of encapsulated anticipation of what will occur subsequently, an emblem of the confusion that ensues when signs and meanings part company in a world fashioned by report. All the characters are disguised, as in a certain sense all human beings are--masked from one another, their motives always matter of conjecture, fatally subject to both interpretation and misinterpretation. As occurs on a larger and more dramatic scale subsequently, a vicious deception is perpetrated by Don John, who takes lugubrious delight in playing the role of serpent in other people's gardens. 7 This leads to a phase of confusion, followed by apparent clarification when what is adjudged to be a correct reading is placed on signs that have hitherto demonstrated themselves to be dangerously ambiguous. At the centre of everything is Hero, quiescent and enigmatically silent, who after her betrothal does not utter a syllable until she agrees to lend her assistance in duping Benedick and Beatrice into matrimony, until she too joins a world of hearsay and of what Dogberry calls 'false report' (V.i.210). Until that moment, she does not offer a single audible comment in connection with the arrangements that have been made concerning her: she allows everyone else to do the talking, both for and about her, which is of course what happens subsequently in the play as well. The only time she does speak, it is in a whisper, and privately to Claudio. Beatrice surmises that 'My cousin tells him in his ear that he is in her heart' (II.i.296-7), but although Claudio confirms the accuracy of her guess, we are allowed to hear nothing, with the consequence that we too are dependent upon hearsay for our sense of what is happening. What Hero's whispers amount to are a nothing, once again, that becomes something in and through the report of others.

  12. There are several observations to make at this point about Hero, and particularly about her silence at this crucial phase in the proceedings. The first is that one does not, I think, have to be of a militantly feminist cast of mind to suggest that there is something at the very least questionable about the way the issue of Hero's marriage is being addressed by the other characters of the play, even taking all due account of the patriarchal standards of the period. Hero is accorded no say whatsoever in the matter of choosing a husband, but is regarded as being at the complete disposal of the males that surround her. 8 When her father is induced to believe, erroneously as it turns out, that Don Pedro is enamoured of Hero he immediately sets about preparing his daughter to make an appropriate response at such time as the Prince should avow his sentiments (I.ii.19-21). We are left in little doubt what that response should be. Since Leonato's brother Antonio has greeted the news as having 'a good cover; they show well outward' (I.ii.6-7), and since he exhorts Hero later to comply with her father's instructions (II.i.46-7), it is to be presumed that both brothers are in favour of the Prince's suit. Although Beatrice expresses her dissent when she says that a woman should consult her own taste in the matter of selecting a mate (II.i.48-52), her objections are overridden--or rather, simply ignored--by her uncles, while to the silent Hero Leonato insists: 'Daughter, remember what I told you: if the Prince do solicit you in that kind, you know your answer' (II.i.61-2).

  13. A question that might legitimately be asked at this juncture, therefore, is this: who exactly does Hero think is wooing her during the dance in which all the participants are masked? Although Don Pedro has given assurances that he will identify himself as Claudio, we do not in fact hear him doing so, and even if he has there is no particular reason why he should be believed--given the fact that Hero has been primed to expect an overture on the part of the Prince. A number of those present at the dance penetrate the disguises of others without any difficulty, 9 and there is no reason to suppose that Hero is any less percipient. Thus, although we are allowed to hear a coy exchange in which Hero seems to acquiesce in the suit, the question of whose suit she thinks she is acquiescing in remains a matter for conjecture (II.i.79-91). Once again, the crucial words that would supply the key to feeling and motive are exchanged out of earshot, and it is only subsequently, through the Prince's triumphant announcement to Claudio that 'I have wooed in thy name, and fair Hero is won' (II.i.280-1), that we learn what the outcome of his amatory negotiations has been.

  14. Although from Claudio's point of view things have no doubt turned out better than he had any reason to expect, the situation might not be quite so satisfactory when examined from Hero's perspective. As far as she is concerned, one of two things has occurred, neither of which is calculated to inspire much rejoicing in even the most submissive of maidens: either she has believed that she was being wooed by the Prince, and having given her consent now finds herself being handed over to Claudio on a silver platter, or she has believed that she was being wooed by Claudio, and now learns that it was the Prince who was transacting the affair all along. It is hardly surprising, therefore, according to either hypothesis, that all the time Don Pedro, Leonato, and Claudio are complacently discussing the arrangements that have been made concerning her future, Hero herself should remain mysteriously silent. At the level of ordinary human psychology her silence might betoken surprise, or even shock, at the odd turn events have taken, a development that nothing has led her to anticipate. But in symbolic terms as well her silence is singularly appropriate, for the simple reason that to all intents and purposes she has been denied any voice whatsoever in the forging of her destiny. What Hero's silence reflects, in other words, is the fact that, in social terms at least, she is essentially no more than a cipher, a sign without content, an abstract token subject to male manipulation, intrinsically nothing. A nothing, of course, about which a great deal of ado is being made.

  15. Another observation I wish to make is related to the first, or rather transposes the first into a somewhat more rudimentary set of terms. It is often pointed out by commentators, with variable proportions of bashfulness and glee, that in Shakespeare's verbal universe the word nothing can refer among other things to the female genitalia, 10 as opposed to the male thing that tangibly proclaims men's active presence in the world. The word thus belongs to the rather extensive category of bawdy terms for the female sexual organs which also includes such items as ring and circle and eye as well as, perhaps relevantly from the point of view of the present discussion, the letter O. 11 There are contexts of course in which too much can be made of this--it would be unsafe as well as fatiguing to read a sexual innuendo into every occurrence of the word nothing in Elizabethan literature--but it seems reasonable to assume that the association exists as a potentially exploitable semantic resource, and that it might therefore contribute a resonance to the title of Shakespeare's play as well. In a work that is centrally concerned with the manner in which nothing becomes something through processes of collective elaboration, through report and other forms of 'ado', it is clear that the crucial question of how the perhaps punningly named Hero has been disposing of her sexuality--her O, to put things in a nutshell--will not only assume semantic and epistemological connotations but also assimilate those connotations to a gendered structuring of experience.

  16. According to the Galenic tradition in Renaissance physiology, the female genitalia were to be envisaged as an interiorised inversion of those of the male, a kind of image in reverse, negative counterpart or--picturesquely if somewhat improbably--the same essential apparatus turned inside out. 12 A tenet of this medical tradition was, in the words of Stephen Greenblatt, that 'there are not two radically different sexual structures but only one--outward and visible in the man, inverted and hidden in the woman' (Greenblatt 1988, 77). The failure on the part of women to extrude their organs as men did was explained in terms of a deficiency in vital heat, this being a symptom once again of the essential inferiority of the sex at large.13 Even if the principle of correspondence was not expressly formulated, the configuration of the female reproductive organs could thus be viewed readily enough as emblematic of the woman's providentially appointed status in the marriage relation as the 'weaker vessel'. According to the conventional delineation of gender roles, the woman was supposed as a social and psychological entity to reflect the characteristics of her physical sexuality: she was expected to be withdrawn, inward, house-bound, submissive, the incarnation of pure receptivity--wholly dependent on the male both for social definition and for biological fecundity. Yet even if the female principle, both sexually and socially, was conceived as a kind of absence, the absence was of a kind that paradoxically evoked presence, that constituted the occasion or the inspiration or the pretext for things to happen in the external world of male concerns. In the biological realm, most obviously, it is from the woman's ostensibly negative sexuality that life proceeds, although the anxiety arising from such a consideration can be dispelled through the expedient of representing the womb in passive terms as a field made fruitful through male husbandry. Even in the cultural sphere presided over by the male, however, female vacancy assumes overwhelming importance. Men are preoccupied with precisely that part of a woman which is no thing, compose sonnets to possess it, fight duels to retain it. In the case of the Trojan siege, an entire war was purportedly waged over how one particular instance of this negativity should be bestowed. As Thersites implies when he inveighs against the absurdity of 'those that war for a placket', 14 it was not a face alone that launched a thousand ships.

  17. Woman's sex is therefore a vacancy that evokes a plenum of meaning, but only so long as it is subject to male elaboration. 15 The moment the woman is empowered as an active sexual agent the rules of the game change radically and, for the male, disconcertingly. What was formerly a nothing becomes a something in its own right, and potentially threatening for that very reason. 16 No longer lending itself passively to male semiosis, it invests itself with autonomous significance, makes its own ado, assumes an active and independent role in the production of meaning. The hovering menace of such enfranchisement is hinted at in Beatrice's incitement to Hero to follow her own inclination in selecting a marriage partner: 'it is my cousin's duty to make curtsy and say, "Father, as it please you": but yet for all that, cousin, let him be a handsome fellow, or else make another curtsy and say, "Father, as it please me"' (II.i.48-52). It is a threat to the semiotic hegemony of the male of precisely this sort that erupts when the suspicion dawns that Hero might be pursuing an active sexual life of her own, in defiance of the forms and ceremonies whereby sex is invested with social meaning. The passion that is aroused by this suspicion is not so much sexual jealousy as such as a kind of terror in the face of what appears to be a declaration of independence on the part of the sign. Claudio's outrage at what he thinks to have been Hero's faithlessness expresses itself in terms of semiotic disruption. 'She's but the sign and semblance of her honour' (IV.i.32), he rages, and the exchange with Hero continues in very much the same vein:

    Hero. O, God defend me, how am I beset!
    What kind of catechizing call you this?

    Claud. To make you answer truly to your name.

    Hero. Is it not Hero? Who can blot that name
    With any just reproach?

    Claud. Marry, that can Hero;
    Hero itself can blot out Hero's virtue.

    O Hero! What a Hero hadst thou been,
    If half thy outward graces had been plac'd
    About thy thoughts and counsels of thy heart! (IV.i.77-102)

    In this turmoil, even names have come adrift from their moorings, have divided against themselves, been made to assume divergent meanings that cannot be reconciled. It is not only the world of visible signs but language itself that is out of joint, and Chaos is come again.

  18. It is not only Claudio, technically the only affronted party, who is incensed at Hero's imagined transgression. The assumptions of the entire patriarchal order, which has arrogated to itself the exclusive right to legislate meaning, are being subjected to a challenge, and all the male characters with the exception of Benedick and Friar Francis rise to meet it. Don Pedro is as righteously indignant as Claudio--'I stand dishonour'd, that have gone about / To link my dear friend to a common stale' (IV.i.64-5)--and no less zealous about subjecting Hero to a humiliating ordeal of public exposure designed to annihilate her as a social being. Even Hero's own father Leonato rallies to the endangered banner of male prerogative, exclaiming that 'Death is the fairest cover for her shame / That may be wish'd for' (IV.i.116-17), and launching into a long tirade in which his sense of violated ownership over Hero betrays itself in every syllable:

    But mine, and mine I lov'd, and mine I prais'd,
    And mine that I was proud on--mine so much
    That I myself was to myself not mine,
    Valuing of her--why, she, O, she is fall'n
    Into a pit of ink. (IV.i.136-40)

    The response of the offended male order to the challenge posed by a nothing that aspires to the status of a something is ruthless. Publicly shamed, repudiated by her betrothed and disowned by her father, symbolically slain, Hero is reduced even more drastically than before to the nothingness from which, in the conception of the men who surround her, she has had the effrontery to emerge.

  19. The privilege of personal choice in the sexual domain that Hero is erroneously believed to have actively exercised is vindicated by Beatrice as well, though in the negative terms that earn her the reputation of being 'curst' (II.i.18). What she insists on, very vocally, is her right to decline marriage with any man who does not please her, and since no man appears to please her, her future as a spinster seems assured. From the androcentric point of view, wholescale promiscuity and obstinate virginity amount to very much the same thing inasmuch as they both constitute extreme affirmations of the woman's right to dispose of her own sexuality as she sees fit, to remove it from the sphere of male control. Like Hero's apparently enfranchised sexuality, the emancipated tongue with which Beatrice defends her own sexual prerogatives, and by extension those of all womankind, imposes itself as an active agent in a world in which only men are expected to be active. It is possible indeed that there is an even more overtly sexual dimension to her volubility. Lisa Jardine has argued at length not only that the scolding woman of the Kate/Beatrice variety would have been perceived as a potential threat to the patriarchal order--representing 'the irrational and uncontrollable in even the best-ordered male life' (Jardine 1983, 103)--but that the tongue was envisaged in explicitly sexual terms as 'the specifically female sexual instrument--the female counterpart of the penis' (Jardine 1983, 121). 17 It is not necessary to insist too much on this, for the nature of the threat is fairly apparent whether or not specific physiological correspondences are implied. What is important is that in this case as well what was supposed to be nothing--the female voice, effacing itself in the demure silence that was deemed to be among the most becoming attributes of a woman--has transformed itself into something. Whether we are talking about unconstrained sexual activity, on the one hand, or unconstrained verbal activity, on the other, what we are witnessing is an invasion of semiotic space, something that cannot be tolerated by those who have traditionally monopolised that territory.

  20. The situation can only be put to rights by neutralising the threat, by reducing insubordinate things to nothing. In Beatrice's case, this occurs when she expresses the desire to see revenge of the good old-fashioned variety wreaked upon Claudio for the aspersions he has cast on Hero's 'honour'. 18 Beatrice's wish that 'I were a man for his sake' (IV.i.316) so that she could personally perform this act of retribution, followed by her lament 'I cannot be a man with wishing, therefore I will die a woman with grieving' (IV.i.321-3), amounts to virtual capitulation before an order of things in which men necessarily have the upper hand. On the one hand Beatrice is implicitly deferring to a masculine ethic based on such concepts as honour and revenge, and on the other she is admitting that she does not possess the essential attributes of manhood that would enable her to put that ethic into practice. Earlier she has derided the military virtues exemplified by Benedick, enquiring of the messenger in the first scene 'how many hath he killed and eaten' in the recent wars (I.i.38-9) and describing him as 'a very valiant trencher-man' (I.i.46). Now her injunction to Benedick to 'Kill Claudio' (IV.i.288) on her behalf represents an affirmation even on the part of an intelligent and independently-minded woman of those codes according to which men slaughter each other over a point of honour, war for a placket, make an infinite deal of ado about nothing. If Jardine is right in suggesting that the scolding tongue of which characters such as Beatrice are possessed is somehow equivalent to the male organ, then Beatrice is presumably 'emasculated' the moment she must confess her inability to wreak physical vengeance upon Claudio for the dishonour he has inflicted upon Hero, the moment that is in which she must appeal to Benedick to demonstrate his love for her by eliminating his friend. All very reassuring.

  21. Hero, as we have seen, has been reduced to nothing in a far more drastic sense, but her symbolic death as a social entity hardly represents a comic resolution to the problems that have been raised. Nor ultimately does it even resolve the problem of endangered male privilege, for the mere elimination of the upstart sign cannot possibly be as gratifying as would be its reincorporation within the system of meaning from which it has severed itself. For there to be such a resolution, the problem must be neutralised by showing that it does not really exist, that it has never existed, that the appearance of a problem has been an illusion consequent on misreading the signs. Claudio has been mistaken in believing that signs have been sundered from their meanings. The wrong sort of ado has been made about the wrong sort of nothing. It is Friar Francis who is able to read the signs correctly and perceive the situation in its true aspect:

    Hear me a little;
    For I have only been silent so long,
    And given way unto this course of fortune,
    By noting of the lady. I have mark'd
    A thousand blushing apparitions
    To start into her face, a thousand innocent shames
    In angel whiteness beat away those blushes,
    And in her eye there hath appear'd a fire
    To burn the errors that these princes hold
    Against her maiden truth. Call me a fool;
    Trust not my reading nor my observations,
    Which with experimental seal doth warrant
    The tenor of my book; trust not my age,
    My reverence, calling, nor divinity,
    If this sweet lady lie not guiltless here
    Under some biting error. (IV.i.155-70)

    The problem is solved, then, not by calling into question the assumptions according to which Claudio and Don Pedro have been operating, but by representing the two men as the hapless victims of error. If they have been brutal and self-righteous and quite extraordinarily dim-witted, at least it has been in a good cause. They are therefore eligible for redemption, provided only that they submit to the ceremony of expiation enjoined upon them by Leonato, an obligation that they willingly assume. 19 If Claudio and Don Pedro are perfectly sincere in their contrition, however, it is because they can fully afford to be, since in the final analysis the vindication of Hero as a maiden of unsullied virtue is also a vindication of their own value system. 20 Hero has not after all betrayed the male order of things, and therefore can be lamented with complete impunity: indeed, by publicly proclaiming her virtue her mourners are really celebrating their own assumptions. She can, at this point, safely be brought back to life, since 'She died ... but whiles her slander liv'd' (V.iv.66).

  22. As is symbolically appropriate, the scene in which Claudio's new betrothed reveals herself to be Hero is realised as a ritual of unmasking, the implication being that the veils have fallen and clarification has at last been achieved. The mask-business of this second betrothal, however, recalls that of the first, in which whatever equilibrium was arrived at was of a fragile and decidedly provisional character. History seems to be repeating itself, and in view of what has occurred earlier in the play it would perhaps be neither perverse nor wholly out of order to ask how long this idyll is going to last. Although he has finally been persuaded of Hero's innocence, Claudio shows every sign of remaining as dangerously credulous as ever, for he has believed without question both that Hero is dead and that Leonato has a niece who is identical to his daughter. His proneness to believe himself betrayed--evinced on separate occasions in his relations with both Don Pedro and Hero--may be an abiding trait in his character, and not merely a temporary aberration. And as a messenger reports in the penultimate line of the play, the insidious Don John is being brought back to Messina. 'Think not on him till tomorrow', counsels Benedick before the dance commences with which the comedy concludes (V.iv.125), but tomorrow always does arrive in the end, and the threat represented by Don John--his talent for building vast edifices of misapprehension on non-existent foundations--is not necessarily going to be exorcised in any definitive fashion by the 'brave punishments' that are to be meted out to him (V.iv.125-6). It is perhaps worth noting that this is no less than the third discomfiture which the play represents Don John as having suffered, 21 and unless he is physically eliminated, there is no reason why his malicious scheming should not continue in the future as well. Without wishing to make more ado about this than the occasion warrants, I would suggest that it is difficult not to perceive ironic reverberations in this strangely inconclusive conclusion to the comedy. If those caught up in the whirl of the final dance can forget Don John and all he stands for, perhaps we in the audience should not.

  23. In the comic subplot revolving around the activities of Dogberry and the watchmen under his command much fun is made of the manner in which the chance use of a word can give rise to what seems to be endlessly proliferating confusion. When Borachio is overheard to say 'seest thou not what a deformed thief this fashion is?' (III.iii.121), a watchman thinks he detects a reference to 'Deformed; a has been a vile thief this seven year; a goes up and down like a gentleman' (III.iii.122-24). Subsequently, when Borachio and Conrade are placed under arrest, the watchman is convinced that they have apprehended this oddly-named miscreant together with the others: 'Deformed is one of them; I know him, a wears a lock' (III.iii.163-4). Taking his cue from his colleague's remarks, another watchman promises the prisoners that 'You'll be made bring Deformed forth, I warrant you' (III.iii.166-7). At this point, what began as an individual misapprehension has acquired public status, assumed an identity, become almost an autonomous entity in its own right. By the time we arrive at Dogberry's report to Leonato the non-existent figure of Deformed has been fleshed out even further:

    And also the watch heard them talk of one Deformed; they say he wears a key in his ear and a lock hanging by it, and borrows money in God's name, the which he hath used so long, and never paid, that now men grow hard-hearted and will lend nothing for God's sake. (V.i.301-6)

    From the purely literal point of view, of course, Deformed is no more than a figment, an accidental by-product of language, of no importance whatsover. But there is another sense in which he is the presiding genius of the play, no less present for being absent, the spirit of the infinite amount of ado that can be made about nothing. From this point of view he is as ubiquitous as error itself, for in a world in which nothing can become anything through the inexhaustible capacity of human beings for misery and mischief, there is almost nothing that will not be brought forth deformed.


  1. All references to Much Ado About Nothing are in the Arden Edition (Humphreys 1981).


  2. It is frequently pointed out that because in Elizabethan pronunciation nothing would have sounded much the same as noting, or observing, a double-entendre would have been discernible in Shakespeare's title (See Humphreys 1981, 62; Hawkes 1994, 198).


  3. Cf. Jean Howard's observations concerning those aspects of the play 'which point to the conclusion that in a thoroughly dramatistic universe one can escape neither from discourse nor from the play of power which authorizes the truth of one construction of the world over another'. (Howard 1994, 64).


  4. It does not matter very much whether the messenger is the same or another, although in view of the interpretation I am proposing here it might be more dramatically effective to employ the same actor in both scenes.


  5. A. B. Dawson calls attention to the importance of the messenger, suggesting that he 'poses the problem of reliable meaning, of interpretation', in a play in which 'attention is directed as much to the way meaning is produced as to what the meaning is' (Dawson 1982, 212, 211).


  6. Twelfth Night, III.i.37.


  7. Don John's declaration that 'I cannot hide what I am' (I.iii.12-13), which would seem to suggest that he is paradoxically immune to the discrepancy between appearance and reality that afflicts the other characters in the play, is patently insincere, since he dissembles his true intentions as thoroughly as any other Shakespearean villain. His direction to Conrade to 'let me be that I am' (I.iii.34), which sounds merely petulant, might rewardingly be compared with Iago's far more unnerving pronouncement 'I am not what I am' in Othello (I.i.65).


  8. It is perhaps significant that although there is evidence in the Quarto edition of the work to suggest that Shakespeare initially intended to furnish Hero with a mother, he seems to have changed his mind at a fairly early stage in the composition of the comedy (see Humphreys 1981, 77). I find Terence Hawkes's provocative suggestion that Leonato's wife Innogen, mentioned in the scene directions but not assigned any speeches, is present in the play as a personage whose 'dumb, watching presence' poses an ironic challenge to the prevalent masculine ideology more ingenious than convincing (Hawkes 1994, 205). It is perfectly appropriate that except for Beatrice, who in the final analysis proves to be of little practical assistance, Hero should be left on her own in a predominantly male world.


  9. Antonio, Benedick, Don Pedro, and Claudio are recognized by Ursulla, Beatrice, Don John, and Borachio respectively.


  10. For an example of bawdy quibbling on the word nothing, see Hamlet, III.ii.119, and Harold Jenkins's note in the Arden Edition of the play (Jenkins 1982, 295).


  11. For the significance of O see Partridge 1968, 154, and Partridge's own cross-references to circle (79) and eye (102). About the word nothing, interestingly enough, Partridge has nothing to say. For instances of quibbles on the word O, see Romeo and Juliet III.iii.90, and The Merry Wives of Windsor IV.i.42 et seq. In Shakespeare the sound represented by the letter O is sometimes invested with sexual associations, as in Troilus and Cressida III.i.110-21, and Cymbeline II.iv.169. Since O could also designate other things, including the theatre in which Shakespeare's own plays were performed (as in the Prologue to Henry V), the possible chains of verbal association are bewilderingly complex.


  12. See Stephen Greenblatt's absorbing discussion of medical accounts of hermaphroditism in Renaissance Europe (Greenblatt 1988, esp. 73-86).


  13. The physician Ambroise Paré summed up the matter as follows: 'For that which man hath apparent without, that women have hid within, both by the singular providence of Nature, as also by the defect of heat in women, which could not drive and thrust forth those parts as in men.' Paré, The Workes of that Famous Chirurgian Ambrose Parey translated by Thomas Johnson (London: Thomas Cotes, 1634), p. 128, quoted in Greenblatt 1988, 80-1.


  14. Troilus and Cressida, II.iii.20-1.


  15. My argument at this point shares common ground with Carol Cook's perceptive discussion of the 'masculine prerogative in language' which Much Ado subjects to scrutiny (Cook 1986, 186). According to Cook, 'the masculine, in the world of the play, is the place of speaking and reading subjects, of manipulators and interpreters of signs' (186). By contrast, 'it is the place of the woman to be the object, or referent, of language, a sign to be read and interpreted; silent herself, she becomes a cipher, the target of unconscious fantasies and fears' (189).


  16. For an analysis of Othello in terms analogous to those I am employing here see Snow 1980, 384-412, and Cavell 1987, chap. 3.


  17. The literature of the period, Jardine suggests, makes implicit use of the equation: 'scolding = active use of the female tongue = female sexuality = female penis' (Jardine 1983, 121).


  18. It hardly needs to be repeated that the concept of honour invoked here is an essentially androcentric one even if it is applied to a woman. For a woman to be honourable means simply that she has not behaved as even the most honourable men were expected to behave, that she has not compromised her function as a sign.


  19. Since, to judge from the words of a song, this ceremony involves a solemn procession around a funerary monument which ironically does not contain Hero--'Round about her tomb they go' (V.iii.15)--what it would seem to amount to is yet another instance of much ado being produced about nothing.


  20. A point that is made by Cook when she argues that Hero is 'redefined so as to be reappropriated to the patriarchal order as a disembodied ideal' (Cook 1986, 199).


  21. The first occurs before the play opens, when an attempt at rebellion is foiled largely through Claudio's efforts (as Don John recalls in I.iii.62-3), the second when his attempt to inspire Claudio with jealousy in the dance scene fails to gather momentum, and the third when his scheme to divide Claudio and Hero is frustrated by a perceptive friar.


List of Works Cited

Cavell, Stanley. 1987; repr. 1991. Disowning Knowledge in Six Plays of Shakespeare. Cambridge: Cambridge University
Cook, Carol. 1986. '"The Sign and Semblance of Her Honor": Reading Gender Difference in Much Ado About Nothing'
PMLA 101 (1986), 186-202.
Dawson, A. B. 1982. 'Much Ado About Signifying', Studies in English Literature 22, 211-21.
Durant, Will and Ariel. 1961. The Age of Reason Begins. New York: Simon and Schuster.
Elam, Keir. 1984; repr. 1989. Shakespeare's Universe of Discourse: Language-Games in the Comedies. Cambridge:
Cambridge University Press.
Greenblatt, Stephen. 1988; repr. 1992. Shakespearean Negotiations: The Circulation of Social Energy in Renaissance
England. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Hawkes, Terence. 1994. 'Shakespeare's Spooks, or Someone to Watch Over Me', in Michael Hattaway, Boika Sokolova
and Derek Roper. Ed. Shakespeare in the New Europe. Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 194-206.
Henze, Richard. 1971. 'Deception in Much Ado', Studies in English Literature 11, 187-201.
Howard, Jean. 1994. The Stage and Social Struggle in Early Modern England. London: Routledge.
Humphreys, A. R. 1981; repr. 1994. 'Introduction' to Much Ado About Nothing. London and New York: Routledge.
Jardine, Lisa. 1983; repr. 1989. Still Harping on Daughters: Women and Drama in the Age of Shakespeare. Hemel
Hempstead: Harvester Wheatsheaf.
Jenkins, Harold. 1982; repr. 1990. 'Introduction' to the Arden Edition of Hamlet. London and New York: Routledge.
Mahood, M. M. 1957; repr. 1988. Shakespeare's Wordplay. London: Routledge.
Partridge, Eric. 1968; repr. 1990. Shakespeare's Bawdy. London: Routledge.
Rossiter, A. P. 1961; repr. 1992. Angel with Horns: Fifteen Lectures on Shakespeare, edited by Graham Storey. London
and New York: Longman.
Snow, Edward A. 1980. 'Sexual Anxiety and the Male Order of Things in Othello'. English Literary Renaissance 10:

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Contents © Copyright David Lucking 1997.
Format © Copyright Renaissance Forum 1997. ISSN 1362-1149. Volume 2, Number 1, Spring 1997.
Technical Editor: Andrew Butler. Updated 11 September 1997.