I’ve been really bogged down on Much Ado About Nothing: brother-in-law really sick; me sick — not debilitating but distracting ― twice; my computer quite sick three times. It all seems a long time since I read the play for the start of our discussion. These are my thoughts around putting Much Ado in some context.
Comedy is the social genre, entanglements of people, usually taking place in this time and this place, trading in human foibles, self-deceptions, weaknesses, and miscommunications based on limited perception (think of mistakes of identity). The Plot of comedy, for two thousand years, from Menander to I Love Lucy is variation on ‘boy sees and woos girl; obstacles arise (often parents but it may be the girl’s resistance until the boy proves himself worthy); then boy gets girl. [I’ll explain the end of comedy with Lucy on request.] Also, comedy is about us, though the textures of society, the conventions, and fashions change. Comedy is not necessarily a laughing matter, though one of the alazonic types, the agelast, one who is against laughter as is Don John or Malvolio, deserves ridicule. The direction of comedy is from disharmony toward harmony (thus, a dance or a marriage at the end, and don’t dare try to add a sixth act after the marriage), and the outcome of comedy is change, typically generational change, when the young couple replaces the older generation. Much Ado About Nothing is Shakespeare's first play that imposes common sense to resolve the disorderly landscape of comedy.
In Much Ado, the primary Plot would be Claudio and Hero. Claudio falls in love-at-first-sight, smitten by her physical beauty without any introduction other than her acceptable pedigree. Derek accounts for this abruptness with a reasonable speculation that these two young people have not heretofore been “adults.” Juliet, for instance, seems to have spent her fourteen years entirely in her nursery and at church, so Capulet’s feast is her very first excursion into society. Oh, brave new world that hath such people in it. No wonder Juliet falls in love at first sight, certainly a great comic plot until she is cast out by her father.
Claudio’s passion is entirely superficial: “In mine eye she is the sweetest lady I ever looked on,” and he plays a version of the chivalric unrequited lover, negotiating for Don Pedro to woo for him. This is surely parallel to the medieval lover playing plaintive melodie beneath his distant lady’s window. Romeo would be nailing sonnets to Rosalind on trees, but Claudio does not show enough intelligence to write or even to count to fourteen. Leonato, Hero’s father, approves of the match, so when it is time in The Plot for obstacles to arise (the test), they must be imposed artificially by the Don John/ Borachio/ Margaret intrigue, with Don Pedro and Claudio positioned to perceive ocular proof. They respond without common sense because they belong to the class governed by the conventions of chivalry. Both Don Pedro and Claudio are full of their self-aggrandizing sense of superior honor. Their righteousness seems equivalent of Hotspur’s impetuousness. It is brutally comic that Hotspur’s “die all, die merrily” applies only to their treatment of Hero.
The more true comic Plot is Beatrice and Benedick. Derek has explored their prior relationship ― some schism or betrayal has already raised the obstacle ― and he notes (smile) how the complexity of Beatrice’s relationship to Benedick is discovered. Thus Beatrice first describes Benedick: “In our last conflict four of his five wits went halting off, and now is the whole man governed by the one” (I..i.61-3). The five wits are catalogued as common sense, imagination, fancy, estimation, and memory. In the Restoration the sixth sense is wit, intelligence, and it governs the traditional five senses. Here, my guess is that Beatrice credits Benedick only with fancy, but by the end of the play it must be the reassertion of common sense that restores order. Beatrice continues her commentary, this time to the masked Benedick himself: “Why, he is the Prince’s jester, a very dull fool. Only his gift is in devising impossible slanders” (II.i.136-8). She is being witty about wit, yet if genius is said to be close to madness, here she sneers at wit in a way that perfectly anticipates Don John’s epitome of malice, the impossible slander of Hero.
Gossip is rife, based on overhearing plus intrigue (intentional deception). Thus, watching (“noting”) and making judgments that may well be false is a theme. The aristocrats contrive just such intrigue to delude or dupe both the B’s into being open to words of love from the other. But first, Beatrice exercises common sense in reading the integrity of Hero’s character, a matter of reason not of faith. Benedick accepts Beatrice’s judgment, in accepting, though delaying, her “Kill Claudio” command. And the Friar may supply the most common sense of all in assessing the denunciation of Hero as too irrational and counseling patience to see how events may evolve, how the practice of common sense allows truth to prevail.
Against common sense are tendencies toward farce: Claudio too easily accepts the Borachio deception; Don John’s congenital malevolent mischief making is merely a catalyst yet so uncentral to the denouement that Shakespeare abandons him after the deception dumbshow — nothing more than: ‘oh, by the way, Your brother John is ta’en in flight — Never mind, strike up the pipe”; and the linguistic muddling of Dogberry and Verges, uncomprehending witnesses to the truth.
Shakespeare, nonetheless, often will frame his comedies with a potentially tragic threat ― Egeon condemned to die by sunset in Comedy of Errors; Hermia condemned to die or be immured in a nunnery for disobedience in A Midsummer Night's Dream; Antonio’s death sentence in Twelfth Night ― to ground the comic in a “real” world. In Much Ado, the disinheritance and ‘death’ of Hero do not frame the comic action. They are the fulcrum, comparable to Capulet at the turning point of Romeo and Juliet, whom Leonato’s condemnation of his own daughter ― a father dishonored? ― echoes. The placement of the tragic moment raises Northrop Frye-like myth, death and resurrection, and you all have cited Hero’s “One Hero died defil’d, but I do live/ And surely as I live, I am a maid.”
(Lord, there’s the old schoolboy joke: Hero has lost her honor, so how can I get her honor back?—pause—rim shot).
But the central comic plot is the movement from disharmony ― Benedick’s “I will live a bachelor” (I.i.236) and Beatrice’s "[I will not be fitted to a husband] 'tiil God make men of some other metal than earth” (II.i.59-60) ― to harmony: Benedick, publicly ― “In brief, since I do purpose to marry, I will think nothing to any purpose that the world can say against it. … Come come, we are friends. Let’s have a dance ere we are married” (V.iv.104-6, 117-18). Wit and common sense triumph over the foibles (and vices) of society. And then, as my mentor Roger Sale once said, one reads Much Ado About Nothing in order to learn to read Twelfth Night. But first a detour through the Forest of Arden.