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Much Ado About Nothing /

A Modern Perspective: Much Ado About Nothing

By Gail Kern Paster

Cuckoldry jokes are in the air in Messina. Its governor, Leonato, snatches one out of it when he jokes feebly about having to ask his wife repeatedly for reassurance as to his daughter’s legitimacy:

PRINCE  I think this is your daughter.

LEONATO  Her mother hath many times told me so.1


Benedick draws our attention to this trace of an old suspicion: “Were you in doubt, sir, that you asked her?” (1.1.104). But Benedick, we soon learn, is also suspicious of women as the agents of men’s humiliation and defeat. He expresses an almost pathological fear of betrayal in marriage: to be married is to wear the conventional horns of a cuckold, to have one’s own military bugle snatched away, to have it sounded in one’s own face:

That a woman conceived me, I thank her; that she

brought me up, I likewise give her most humble

thanks. But that I will have a recheat winded [i.e., a

bugle-call blown] in my forehead or hang my bugle

in an invisible baldrick, all women shall pardon

me. Because I will not do them the wrong to

mistrust any, I will do myself the right to trust none.


Benedick’s extraordinary self-portrait of his relations with women yields readily to a psychoanalytic reading. Moving without pause from his conception to his upbringing to his cuckolding, he conflates his relations to mother and to wife, collapses past and future, memories and fears.2 What seems to unify all these stages of a man’s life, for Benedick, is humiliating dependence on women, beginning with the infant’s dependence on maternal women for life and nurture. But that early dependence, instead of being outgrown, is seen here as forerunner to the later sexual humiliations of the adult male. Furthermore, Benedick’s dismissive mention of his mother as the “woman [who] conceived me” betrays her real importance to the structure of repressed memory. In psychoanalytic narratives of male repression, the mother’s lack of the phallus is a disturbing image for the child—an image of his own fear of castration and of his overmastering by another male. But for Benedick, the returning soldier, this fear of women seems less generic than personal: the cuckold’s horns that he envisions as his own future headdress are specifically those of a defeated soldier who has lost his bugle to another soldier. It is not surprising, then, that Benedick’s anticipation of a farewell to arms here parallels Othello’s lament for the loss of heroic identity through an imagined sexual betrayal by Desdemona:

Farewell the tranquil mind! Farewell content!

Farewell the plumèd troops and the big wars

That makes ambition virtue! O, farewell!

Farewell the neighing steed and the shrill trump,

The spirit-stirring drum, th’ ear-piercing fife,

The royal banner, and all quality,

Pride, pomp, and circumstance of glorious war!

(Othello 3.3.400–6)

For soldiers like Benedick and Othello, marriage threatens loss of a valued form of masculine singleness, a loss of control.

More interesting, perhaps, in a comic action like Much Ado’s which is organized around the imagining of sexual betrayal, is that the fear of being associated with the cuckold’s horns is not peculiar to men nor is resistance to marriage a symptom of only masculine identity. Though her uncles worry that Beatrice’s sharp tongue makes her “too curst” (2.1.20) to get a husband, she jokes that she will thereby avoid making her husband wear horns: “I shall lessen God’s sending that way, for it is said ‘God sends a curst cow short horns,’ but to a cow too curst, he sends none” (2.1.21–24). Even the devil, no mere mortal, wears the signs of betrayal; Beatrice imagines having him meet her looking “like an old cuckold with horns on his head” (2.1.44–45). The horn motif continues to sound in the play even after it ostensibly has been silenced by the exposure of Don John’s sexual slander against Hero. Thus Benedick, though converted to love in the person of Beatrice, nonetheless misogynistically urges the play’s remaining eligible bachelor, Don Pedro, to join in the march to the altar in the spirit of accepting a universal, age-old humiliation: “Get thee a wife, get thee a wife. There is no staff more reverend than one tipped with horn” (5.4.126–28). If betrayal is the universal fate of the married, it is no wonder that Beatrice regards marriage as a form of repentance:

 . . . wooing, wedding, and repenting is as a Scotch jig, a

measure, and a cinquepace. The first suit is hot and

hasty like a Scotch jig, and full as fantastical; the

wedding, mannerly modest as a measure, full of

state and ancientry; and then comes repentance,

and with his bad legs falls into the cinquepace faster

and faster till he sink into his grave.


As all these quotations suggest, anxiety about sexual betrayal in marriage seems endemic in Messina, sparing neither the old nor the young, neither male nor female. What is clear in the men’s cuckoldry jokes is their willful silence, for the sake of male friendship and preservation of the status quo, about the male betrayer and a contrasting emphasis on his female partner. It is not the desires of other men that Benedick mistrusts but those of womenkind. It is only when they are among themselves that the Men’s Club of Messina—to borrow Harry Berger’s wonderful appellation—allows Balthasar’s song to register an alternative truth: “Sigh no more, ladies, sigh no more, / Men were deceivers ever, / One foot in sea and one on shore, / To one thing constant never” (2.3.64–67).4

Much Ado is not unusual in its reiterated wordplay on horns, since jokes about the wearing of cuckolds’ horns are commonplace throughout the literature of this period. But, in the drama of the period, there is a marked disparity between the frequency of the jokes and the infrequency of wifely infidelity. Many more wives are falsely accused than are, in fact, guilty. This discrepancy between fears of betrayal and actual guilt suggests that we should focus less on the infidelity itself than on the real source of patriarchal anxiety, which was patriarchy’s inevitable dependence on (and inability to verify) the chastity of wives and mothers. For only such chastity secured a social structure based on legitimate inheritance of lands, wealth, property, rank, and name.

In Much Ado, I want to suggest, this patriarchal anxiety gives cuckoldry jokes a particular, local function. They work to resolve a social contradiction in Elizabethan society, a moment of double bind in the cultural history of marriage in which an authoritarian official tradition collided with an emergent ideal. Sixteenth-century English society had not yet dispensed with forms of overt, virulent misogyny inherited from medieval Catholicism which made marriage, especially for men, a less perfect way of life than celibacy. But it could not readily accommodate these inherited forms of misogyny to a post-Reformation celebration of marriage, particularly in its modern form of companionate, consensual unions in which the emotional satisfaction of both partners assumes new importance. Elizabethan society could not dispense with misogyny because the most general, even ancient function of antifeminist discourse is to justify patriarchy’s unequal distribution of power and property, its subordination of women. But virulent suspicion of wifely chastity—the kind of suspicion that destroys lives and marriages in Othello and The Winter’s Tale, for example—must have seemed incompatible with an emergent theory of marriage focused upon the initial consent of both partners and upon their long-term fulfillment of a set of mutual obligations which were in part material, in part emotional.5 Even Don Pedro, in seeking to promote the marriage of Hero and Claudio, assumes that winning the consent of Hero comes before anything else: “I will break with her and with her father” (1.1.304), while Beatrice slyly urges her cousin not to say “Father, as it please you” but rather “Father, as it please me” (2.1.53, 55–56). If women’s feelings matter, then so, it would seem, do feelings about women: medieval misogyny and post-Reformation marriage theory could not comfortably coexist. From the tension between them, the double plots of Shakespeare’s comedy come into being.

Perhaps such a reading of Much Ado seems obvious. Any reader of the play can see how much of its action is devoted to overcoming, through Don Pedro’s theatrical manipulations, the resistance to love expressed by both Beatrice and Benedick. But to follow this reading to its logical conclusion will require the replacement of a character-based interpretation of the play with one which dissolves boundaries between the text as an autonomous work of art and the culture in which it is produced. Such a reading will attend to the widely dispersed misogyny in Elizabethan culture which speaks in and through Benedick, and to the effects of that misogyny as they register in Beatrice’s resistance. Thus, where I depart from traditional critics is in refusing to accept Beatrice and Benedick’s resistance to marriage as finally psychological in significance, even if it is expressed in psychological form in their language and behavior. I do not wish to explain resistance to marriage as idiosyncratic aspects of the personalities of Beatrice and Benedick, even though such resistance is what most sets them apart from their friends and kinfolk. Nor do I wish to interpret their eventual declarations of mutual affection as the manifestation of a hidden attraction that was there all along. I take their love as the creation of Don Pedro, who would “fain have it a match,” he says, to enliven the time between Claudio’s betrothal and nuptials by accomplishing a difficult thing. And presumably he also wishes to make sure that no person in his lordly jurisdiction escapes from the paradoxical cultural requirement to pair off freely.

But the uncomfortable truth is that, in a misogynistic culture, resistance to marriage is rational, not idiosyncratic, because misogyny—defined as the systematic denigration of women—gives men and women well-founded reasons to suspect one another. Beatrice and Benedick are given the function in this play of wittily enacting for our benefit the conventional postures of mutual antagonism so that their eventual union will seem both to ratify the irrational force of desire (no matter how it is brought into being) and to dissolve the larger social tensions exemplified by their mutual mistrust. Because, even though marriage might appear incompatible with individual peace of mind, it remains the basic form of social organization, the central distribution point in Elizabethan society for the social and sexual goods of adult maturity. This paradox about marriage may serve to explain why Don Pedro, rather than take a laissez-faire position with regard to the wooing and resistance to wooing in his midst, intervenes personally as head of the social order in the double matchmakings of Hero to Claudio, Beatrice to Benedick. Indeed, he has a notable, almost quantifying pragmatism with regard to affection, assuaging Claudio’s fear that his “liking might too sudden seem” with a breezy “What need the bridge much broader than the flood? / The fairest grant is the necessity. / Look what will serve is fit” (1.1.311–13).

It is important for my argument to emphasize that the history of misogyny is also the history of romantic love, that cultivation of antifeminist feeling has, since the early twelfth century in Europe, coexisted with, indeed depended upon, a counterbalancing idealization of woman. As Howard Bloch has argued, “Misogyny and courtly love are coconspiring abstractions of the feminine whose function was from the start, and continues to be, the diversion of women from history by the annihilation of the identity of individual women . . . and thus the transformation of woman into an ideal.”6 That is to say, the idealism of romantic love and the denigration of antifeminist rhetoric are alike in functioning to erase differences between women in order to make women anonymous and invisible to historical action. Such an erasure of differences in women is precisely what occurs in Benedick’s lines quoted above, where the distinct roles of mother and wife are subsumed into the one undifferentiated category, Woman. In the logic of misogyny, if one woman is treacherous, all women are condemned: “Because I will not do them the wrong to mistrust any, I will do myself the right to trust none.” The point is not only, as Harry Berger has argued, that “the difference between men and women in this respect . . . is that women are responsible for their sins but men are not.”7 Even more crucial is to recognize the instability between a misogyny which posits all Women-as-the-Same and an idealization which posits Women-as-Different.8 In the conversations between Claudio and Benedick—as in the similar conversations between Romeo and Mercutio—this instability in the categorization of women is easy to detect: “Can the world buy such a jewel” as Hero, idealist Claudio asks rhetorically. “Yea,” comes the misogynist’s bawdy reply, “and a case [vagina] to put it into” (1.1.177–78).

The marriage yoke. (1.1.197)
From Henry Peacham, Minerua Britanna ... (1612)
The marriage yoke. (1.1.197)
From Henry Peacham, Minerua Britanna … (1612)

Indeed, this instability in the way women are categorized would seem to motivate the different rhetorics by which Benedick and Beatrice are each persuaded to love. While Benedick must be led to believe in Beatrice as Different from all other women, Beatrice must be brought to accept herself as just the Same. Hence Benedick is made to overhear a conversation among the men which describes Beatrice as a compendium of virtues—“an excellent sweet lady,” “out of all suspicion . . . virtuous,” “exceeding wise” (2.3.166–68)—except for her dotage on Benedick. Beatrice, by contrast, learns from Hero and Ursula less about Benedick’s virtues than about her own faults, the chief of which is the nonconformity of resistance: “to be so odd and from all fashions / As Beatrice is cannot be commendable” (3.1.76–77). Both resisters are asked to understand the other’s alleged passion as unwilled and uncontrollable—the real thing, in other words. Beatrice and Benedick experience their separate reactions to this surprising news as free and fortuitous. Benedick, on cue, vows to “be horribly in love with her” (2.3.237). Beatrice, stung by what she has overheard, thereupon commits herself to a course of action she names self-taming, “taming my wild heart to thy loving hand” (3.1.118). But we have heard Don Pedro gloat, “The sport will be when they hold one an opinion of another’s dotage, and no such matter” (2.3.218–20), and we thus have reason to think otherwise about the relative freedom of their actions. We witness the conspirators glorying in the emotional transformations which, in the guise of “love gods” (2.1.377), they claim to have achieved; and we note in their language a deterministic vocabulary of contagion and entrapment. Claudio whispers to the Prince that Benedick has “ta’en th’ infection” (2.3.129); Hero and Ursula congratulate themselves on having “limed,” or trapped, Beatrice (3.1.109). Thus in the contrast between Beatrice and Benedick’s subjective experience of free choice in love and the undeniable presence of social manipulation in bringing them to imagine that freedom, we can recognize the powerful, because invisible, workings of ideological conditioning to make people act, so they think, naturally: “the world,” as Benedick grandiosely declares, “must be peopled” (2.3.244–45).

A pleached bower. (1.2.9)
From T[homas] F[ella], A book of diverse devices ... (1585–98, 1622).
A pleached bower. (1.2.9)
From T[homas] F[ella], A book of diverse devices … (1585–98, 1622).

But since early modern English patriarchy required both marriage and misogyny, the social inscription that works so hard to create romantic love works equally hard to destabilize it. Thematic links between the two institutions of marriage and misogyny are emphasized because, in the double plot of Much Ado About Nothing, the actions to make and to break nuptials employ the same kinds of theatrical means. Shakespeare assigns the function of destroyer with evident symmetry to Don Pedro’s brother, Don John the Bastard, whose sense of self-expression in trying to abort the nuptials of Claudio and Hero matches Don Pedro’s in bringing them about. If the moral differences between the two brothers seem too insistently coded, that may be—as Jean Howard has argued—because the play is ambivalent about the social and moral function of theatrical practice.9 By making the Iago-like Don John a bastard who is so determined to avenge his defeat at the hands of Claudio that he does not scruple to scapegoat Hero in the process, Shakespeare defines one kind of theatrical manipulation as evil, that is, as motivated by the urge to destroy. But is the moral character of Don Pedro’s delight in theatrical practices thereby enhanced? The answer to that question cannot be unproblematical, given that Don Pedro’s surrogate wooing of Hero leads to a series of early misapprehensions—that the Prince woos for himself; that Hero or her father might have preferred to accept the Prince’s suit; that love of women breeds mistrust between male friends because, as Claudio says, “beauty is a witch / Against whose charms faith melteth into blood [i.e., sensual appetite]” (2.1.177–78). Nor does Don Pedro’s devotion to theatrical practice give him any advantage in seeing through his brother’s deception: when the Prince and Claudio witness the scene at Hero’s chamber window in which Margaret allows herself to be courted as Hero in Hero’s clothes, they see and hear only what Don John has prepared them to: “Go but with me tonight, you shall see her chamber window entered, even the night before her wedding day” (3.2.105–7). The potential moral hollowness and material harm of theatrical practices are later emblematized, in this play, when Claudio stands before what we know to be an empty tomb to read an epitaph for Hero.

The play takes pains to construct Claudio as inexperienced and to emphasize the superficiality of a love which arises, he says, at a moment of postcombat mental vacancy:

 . . . now I am returned and that war thoughts

Have left their places vacant, in their rooms

Come thronging soft and delicate desires,

All prompting me how fair young Hero is,

Saying I liked her ere I went to wars.


The prolongation of courtship—which seems the goal of Shakespeare’s other conventional lovers such as Orlando in As You Like It, or even Romeo—holds no attraction for the two-dimensional Claudio, nor does Hero use the courtship period as Rosalind does in As You Like It to investigate the quality of her lover’s desire and imagination. The too-compliant Hero accepts the marriage proposal of a man in a mask and then learns to transfer her consent from the wearer of that mask, Don Pedro, to his young favorite. Claudio does not even plan to spend much time getting acquainted with Hero after their marriage and has to be told that his astonishing plan to accompany Don Pedro home to Aragon would be a great “soil in the new gloss of your marriage” (3.2.5–6). (Indeed, the lovers’ activity of courtship as mutual interrogation is taken over in this play by Beatrice and Benedick. Even though this delight in mutual interrogation is one reason why we are conditioned to expect their eventual union, it is also the case that Beatrice and Benedick use the resulting information to bolster resistance to marriage and to improve their jests at each other’s expense.) Shakespeare uses Claudio’s passivity and inexperience as a wooer to rationalize the young count’s readiness to believe Don John’s slander of Hero and to prepare us eventually to forgive the misogynistic brutality with which he shames her before the assembled wedding guests:

O, what authority and show of truth

Can cunning sin cover itself withal!

Comes not that blood as modest evidence

To witness simple virtue? Would you not swear,

All you that see her, that she were a maid,

By these exterior shows? But she is none.


Claudio’s willed commitment to reading Hero’s blush as “guiltiness, not modesty” (42) suggests that the real problem linking the two plots of the play is the collapse of the tension between women-as-different and women-as-the-same into one incoherent category of woman-as-different-from-herself. The audience then and the audience now are in a position to understand that widespread cultural suspicion of women, surrogate wooing, and Don John’s theatrical illusionism have combined to interrupt the wedding of Hero and Claudio. The audience is also in a position to appreciate the irony of Benedick and Beatrice relinquishing their resistance to marriage and exchanging protestations of love at the very moment when the grounds for mutual suspicion between the sexes seem to have widened. A subtler irony may reside in the complexities of Benedick’s situation as the lapsed misogynist learns of one danger in love he had not foreseen, one other rational reason to remain resistant. That is, even as he gives up misogyny and trusts Beatrice’s word for Hero’s innocence, he finds a new way in which love may be hazardous to one’s health: when he rashly asks Beatrice to “bid me do anything for thee,” she promptly replies, “Kill Claudio” (4.1.302–3). “Ha! Not for the wide world,” comes his automatic reply.

The recuperative necessities of comic closure that will not allow Hero to die or remain dishonored by an unforgiven Claudio also prevent Benedick from having to follow up on the challenge he flings at Claudio and Don Pedro, from having to act irrevocably upon his decision to sacrifice old loyalties to male companions to new loyalties to his future companion in marriage. But the final entrance of the bridal party, with not just the reborn Hero but all the women wearing masks, suggests that the old cultural categories that produce suspicion and slander remain largely untouched by the theatrical manipulations of the Friar and the rapprochement of Beatrice and Benedick. Even the words of Claudio’s question, “Which is the lady I must seize upon?” (5.4.54) in their traditional suggestions of coercion and violence suggest the social manipulations that are required to separate men and women from the companionship of their own sex and precipitate them into the terrifying private world of heterosexual union for life. Perhaps this is why Benedick insists on ending the play not with a wedding but with the stately, regulated movements of a communal dance in which the couples move not singly, but together, and no man is yet wearing horns.

  1. My emphasis. Note here that the original stage directions include the entrance of Leonato’s wife, Innogen, but that editors in this text like others omit her on the plausible ground that she has no words at all, appearing in the text no place but here and in the entrance direction for 2.1. This essay is much indebted to the essays by Carol Cook, Jean E. Howard, and Claire McEachern, which are cited in full in the suggestions for further reading.
  2. See Carol Cook, “ ‘The Sign and Semblance of Her Honor’: Reading Gender Difference in Much Ado About Nothing,” PMLA 101 (1986): 187.
  3. For a brilliant application of this speech, see Harry Berger, Jr., “Against the Sink-a-Pace: Sexual and Family Politics in Much Ado About Nothing,” Shakespeare Quarterly 33 (1982): 302–3.
  4. Ibid., p. 308.
  5. See Ralph A. Houlbrooke, English Family Life, 1576–1716 (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1988), pp. 15–17. For an extended discussion of seventeenth-century discussions of marriage conduct books, see Mary Beth Rose, The Expense of Spirit: Love and Sexuality in English Renaissance Drama (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1988), pp. 116–31.
  6. Howard Bloch, Medieval Misogyny and the Invention of Western Romantic Love (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1991), pp. 196–97.
  7. Berger, “Against the Sink-a-Pace,” p. 307.
  8. On this categorical instability, see Peter Stallybrass, “Patriarchal Territories: The Body Enclosed,” in Rewriting the Renaissance: The Discourses of Sexual Difference in Early Modern Europe, ed. Margaret W. Ferguson, Maureen Quilligan, and Nancy Vickers (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1986), p. 133.
  9. Jean E. Howard, “Renaissance antitheatricality and the politics of gender and rank in Much Ado About Nothing,” in Jean E. Howard and Marion F. O’Connor, eds., Shakespeare Reproduced (London: Methuen, 1987), pp. 172–73.