The theme of deception is ever-present throughout ‘Much Ado About Nothing’; the majority of the plot is based upon purposeful deception, some malevolent while others benign. The play itself, although set in Messina, Italy seems to echo the culture of Elizabethan society in which William Shakespeare lived; the importance of honour and pride at that time induced the need for the people to uphold this status through the constant deception of those around them, whether this was with appearances or words.
Shakespeare creates a world where deception is used throughout the play and on many occasions it was intended for desirable effects; deception for positive effect is known as benevolent deception. One of the first instances where the gap between appearance and reality is portrayed is in the first dialogue of the play. The messenger has come to give news of the return of the men from a battle and speaks of how Claudio was ‘doing in the figure of a lamb, the feats of a lion’.
This illustrates the gap between the appearance of Claudio and the reality of Claudio, of how he exceeds the expectations of his age by his actions on a battlefield, and demonstrates how he deceives those around him of his true capabilities. Shakespeare also uses clever word play with the use of an alliterative pattern where the sounds of ‘Figure of a Lamb’ are echoed in ‘Feats of a Lion’, which offers balance syntax to the line and is typical of Shakespearean blank verse.
Although this is an instance where Claudio is deceiving others; this is, however, not prevalent, at all, throughout the rest of the play, instead Claudio is the one who appears to be subject to the most deception due to his gullibility and short-sightedness. One example of Claudio’s foolishness is when Don John deceives him into believing that Don Pedro is wooing Hero for himself where in fact he is doing it on Claudio’s behalf; this is also ironic since at the same time Claudio is attempting to deceive Don John and Borachio that he is Benedick, they however have not fallen for it.
This quick reaction to the lies fed to him by Don John makes plain his temperament and emotion driven mentality. Moreover, the fact that at that moment in time there are three layers of deception occurring simultaneously typifies the amount of deception there is in the play. Claudio is further deceived, along with Don Pedro, by Don John when he shows them Hero’s apparent disloyalty and ‘immoral’ nature. In Act 3, Scene 2 Don John approaches Don Pedro and Claudio in order to ‘warn’ them of Hero’s disloyalty.
The second line he speaks since he entered their circle includes sibilance, ‘… leisure served, I would speak with you. ‘ which creates an image not too unlike the hissing of a snake before it attacks. There is also a lot of repetition and carefully constructed dialogue in this exchange on Don John’s part; for example, in reply to Don Pedro he says ‘ I know not that, when he knows what I know’. This repetition of ‘know’ places emphasis on knowledge, and how people’s judgments and actions differ when they know a certain thing.
Another point to be made regarding this dialogue and the theme of ‘fitting’ is when Don John comments on how it would ‘better fit your honour’ to not marry Hero, one interpretation of this phrase could include its connotations and implicit links to sex. Claudio’s ‘honour’ is in reference to his penis; a man’s penis, in ancient civilisations such as the Inca, was considered as the symbol of his stature and honour in society and this ideal is not yet lost even in the modern-age.
Don John also says how it would ‘better fit’ his ‘honour’ to change his mind, denoting how Hero’s sexual organ is not fit for his ‘honour’ since she has apparently fornicated. Instead of questioning why Don John, previously known for his wicked deeds, is so willing to help, he instead believes him with no questions further demonstrating his infuriating naivety. Furthermore, of the three consecutive deception scenes this one is considerably shorter. I believe that Shakespeare has done this with the intention to emphasise the drastic change in Don Pedro’s position; this also raises questions Don Pedro’s integrity as a leader.
A man of his position would form reasoned opinions through facts and logic however in this case he has seemed to change his opinion at a whim. This is also one of the points where Shakespeare raises questions about society; in this case he questions the power structure of society by showing how Don Pedro is so easily fooled. In contrast to the character of Claudio, Benedick is portrayed as more of a calm and reasoning character, which has meant that he is rarely deceived in the play.
This dissimilarity between the two is portrayed in Act 1 Scene 1 when Claudio states how ‘in mine eye’ Hero is the ‘sweetest lady’ that he has ever seen, speaking of an idealised love which is evident with his exaggerations; Benedick however is able to ‘see without spectacles’ signifying how he is not fooled by appearances and this becomes important later in the development of the play as Benedick eventually becomes the voice of reason among the chaos which soon plays out.
The comment that Benedick makes about how he can see clearly ‘without spectacles’ seems to be proven when Hero is shamed by the Princes; he demonstrates how he realises the truth of the situation because he believes that ‘their wisdoms be misled in this’ and that the ‘practice of it lives’ in Don John, the bastard brother of Don Pedro. Nonetheless, despite Benedick’s wisdom and astuteness he also falls victim to some benevolent deception himself.
A particularly complex example of deception occurs as Leonato, Claudio, and Don Pedro act as if Beatrice is head over heels in love with Benedick so that the eavesdropping Benedick will overhear it and believe it. Luring Benedick into this trap, Leonato ironically dismisses the idea that perhaps Beatrice hides her desire for Benedick, as he and the others disguise this love themselves.
This scene includes links to other themes including the gap between the appearance of a situation and the reality, an example of this is when Benedick states how he would think it to be a ‘gull’ but does not think so because the ‘white-bearded fellow speaks it’ indicating how he is deceived by the appearance of Leonato because he believes that ‘knavery’, which itself has connotations of youth, could not hide itself in such ‘ Another character in the Shakespeare’s play ‘Much Ado About Nothing’ who is strongly involved with the theme of deception is Don John, the Bastard brother of Don Pedro.
Don John’s character can be accurately described as Machiavellian since he deceives and manipulates others simply for personal gain. One of the most interesting lines that Don John utters is in fact his very first in the play when he is introduced to Leonato; he thanks Leonato for his hospitality and says the he is ‘not a man of many words’. This could be seen as irony since it is exactly his words that cause the slandering and public shaming of the innocent Hero.
Don John’s constant malevolent deception seems not just reserved for others since there are occasional occurrences of self-deception; during a conversation with Conrade he claims that he is a ‘plain-dealing villain’ which in itself is an oxymoron and furthermore seems a direct contradiction to his actions in which he is very far from ‘plain-dealing’, instead he deals in conspiracy, deceit and betrayal. This may be interpreted as an indication to the possible fact that Don John does not realise the extent of his actions nor the pain, strife and hurt that he causes.
This ignorance of his actions may be understood, by some, as ‘innocence’ and that he is not as malicious as his actions make him appear to be. This suggestion is further iterated in the following lines: The speech has echoes of Shylocks’ speech in Act 3 Scene 1 of the Shakespearean comedy ‘The Merchant Of Venice’; in that emotive speech by Shylock the audience was expected to feel sympathy towards Shylock, in the same way Shakespeare encourages the audience to rethink their snap judgements of Don John, perhaps not to change their opinion of him but to at least judge him fairly.
It would seem at first that Don John is simply a deceiver and is not deceived but if we were to analyse more deeply we would realise that he is self deceiving all throughout the play. There are many indications to his self-deception, such as his claim that he is nothing more than a ‘plain-dealing villain’ and again the fact that he believes that he ‘cannot hide’ what he is, furthermore, he claims that he would rather be disdained than to ‘rob love from any’ which is precisely what he does in regards to Claudio and Hero, this yet another clue to his self deception.
His repeated self-deception is not caused by his own physical senses (i. e. he cannot believe his eyes or ears) but rather his own reasoning deceives him in order to protect his ego. Don John’s brother, Don Pedro the Prince of Arragon is a legitimate child and already wins over the affections of the audience; first by the fact that he is a Prince which gives a person instant respect and admiration and secondly because, in contrast to his brother, he is a child born inside wedlock and therefore is considered as a first class citizen as opposed to his brother, Don John the Bastard.
Although, his perception as this exalted being is put into question when he is involved, along with Claudio, in the public shaming of the innocent Hero. The audience, however, may tolerate this since he was a victim of Don John’s deception too and therefore wasn’t truly malicious in his deeds in contrast to his brother. Benedick himself recognises this, knowing the Prince personally he knew it was out of character and the Don Pedro’s ‘wisdoms be misled’ and that the ‘practice of it lives in John the Bastard’.
The Prince of Arragon is not heavily involved in deception and therefore maintains his stature of respect in the audience’s eyes, also by the fact that he is not often deceived portrays his understanding and wisdom. An additional character in William Shakespeare’s ‘Much Ado About Nothing’ who has interesting links to the theme of deception is the niece of Leonato, cousin to Hero, Beatrice the orphan.
By having no parents in her life she has a kind of free reign in regards to her public behaviour and is able to act frivolously and with more controversy than her counterpart Hero. And with this free reign she uses it often to comment on Benedick’s apparent deception of others. She makes innumerable comments on how Signor Benedick of Padua is not how he appears; according to her ‘he wears his faith but as the fashion of his hat’ pointing out how he is ever changing like fashions.
Beatrice, as I mentioned before, makes many remarks regarding Benedick’s deception including in the first scene of the play when she calls him no less than a ‘stuffed man’, meaning that he is superficial and that he has nothing within him i. e. no character or verity. A further observation that I made regarding Beatrice’s regular implicit accusations of Benedick’s infidelity and deception may be interpreted as a sub-conscious confession, on her part, for the feelings for Benedick which she has hidden and with which she has deceived all by.
In conclusion, as we can see, deception, facades, foolishness and the like were nothing but the social graces of that Messinian world and this fashion is echoed in the essence of William Shakespeare’s ‘Much Ado About Nothing’. The justification for the innumerable amount of deception includes the upholding of one’s honour and status among several other reasons. Through this play Shakespeare portrays how deceit is not inherently evil, but something that can be used as a means to good or bad ends.
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