They are not as convention-bound and role-bound as the other characters. They are not fixed in set roles by obedience to social stereotypes or artificial notions of pride and honour. In ““Much Ado About Nothing”” too many men have stereotypical views towards women, which makes it difficult for women to challenge and change the men of Messina’s perception of them. However where surface social practices are concerned, these two are just as susceptible to error as the rest and are extremely fond of gossip and rumour.
A major issue in the play is ‘misprision’ or getting hold of the wrong end of the stick and misreading appearances and language. A central theme seems to be knowledge and how we arrive at it and the song that Beatrice sings connects with this idea the notion that deception deliberately encourages deception and is part of at least male human nature. There is trouble when judging from appearances and Shakespeare clearly intended us to pick up and ponder this vagueness for he stresses it twice and we as the audience have to judge the illusion from the appearance too.
Should we take things as ‘nothing’ or as a fundamentally serious glance at the tragic potential of the attitudes we commonly adopt, on the basis of a knowledge and judgement of people and events which can never be certain, and in which we may be being deliberately misled. The final irony is we as an audience are in a quite literal sense overhearing the characters eavesdropping on the world they live in but that we do not, and that we, like them, judge on appearances too.
In the masked dance Beatrice and Benedick play the role of slanderous gossip-bearers to each other and the fact they are both fond of eavesdropping and spying lays them open to Don Pedro’s love-trick. In the world of ““Much Ado About Nothing”” the men believe women by nature to be promiscuous, clearly seen in all the cuckolding jokes and it is this attitude that drives Benedick’s deep suspicion of marriage. A women’s greatest virtue was her chastity, without which she was worthless, an attitude made abundantly clear by Claudio.
Women are created by God solely for marriage and child bearing and even Beatrice, when she watches Hero’s betrothal, feels a certain regret that she may end up an old maid. Men treated women as goddesses to be worshipped and adored, but this idea of ‘courtly love’ meant that women must live up to some idealised vision created by men. Although Claudio supposedly adores and loves Hero, he never really talks to her. Women who were shrews and scolds could by law be punished for talking too much and women who showed intelligence and independence were ‘curst’, an accusation which both Antonio and Leonato level at Beatrice.
Finally it is women who are responsible for all the ills of the world, because it was Eve who tempted Adam resulting in mankind being banished from paradise. Women very conveniently become the scapegoats and are constantly on the receiving end of male criticism at some point in the play. There is no better example of this in the play than Benedick’s early fortune-daring challenge, that if ever he should marry, ‘let them signify under my sign “Here you may see Benedick the married man.
” However once persuaded that love is at work, he has a short way with his own imprudence. ‘When I said I would die a bachelor, I did not think I should live till I were married’. Twice he is teased about it and Claudio tries to tease him again with singular mistiming just after Benedick has challenged him to a duel. Benedick’s response is a model of that appropriate seriousness which so many others lack. His is not the voice of a court wit, stuck in conventional roles or an obsolete past.
His voice is serious and dignified, curtly contemptuous of Claudio, scrupulously polite to Don Pedro, concise without churlishness and uncompromising. Thus their jibes about ‘Benedick, the married man,’ are childish and ineffectual against this adult and impressive figure. Benedick and Beatrice are unbearable if they are played as a couple verging on middle age. It is essential that they are seen as capable of breaking out of the restricting point-scoring rivalry in which they appear trapped. They must be young enough to learn.
‘A single woman in society whose conventional view of happy love consists of the wife defined as the husband’s property,’ must be a major factor in the defences Beatrice has erected around herself. Benedick has no such excuse. His behaviour in a man of thirty would simply be an irritation and a bore. What he and Beatrice move towards, is not a denial of words but a more open use of them. Silence is not a positive option, it is the realm of Don John. Abandoning words as inadequate is equally futile.
In claiming Hero for the first time, Claudio refuses to explore his feelings because fixed-code language is not up to the job: ‘Silence is the perfectest herald of joy; I were but little happy, if I could say how much. ’ But Benedick finally realises that he must not be frightened of word power. ‘If a man will be beaten with brains, ‘a shall wear nothing handsome about him. ’ Finally while most of the characters seem to feel that they must choose either to make jokes or to be in love, Beatrice and Benedick end up by having their cake and eating it.
Claudio, when he woos, does so in ‘festival terms’. He has a separate language for loving which corresponds to the way in which he idealises Hero and compartmentalises his emotional life. By way of contrast, Benedick, however hard he tries, cannot frame for himself a separate language of love. As a result he and Beatrice construct a loving relationship which is as much of a sparring match as their enmity was. For Beatrice and Benedick, their jokes become a means for them to resist the kind of love-relationship exemplified by Hero and Claudio.
In the end the ‘happy-ending’ which sees Hero married off to Claudio is one fraught with contradictions, for the conventional relationship founded on romantic love which they exemplify has been severely satirised by Shakespeare. Beatrice and Benedick are offered to us as an alternative to Hero and Claudio because they have managed to deploy their jokes and their bantering not only as a defence against love, but also as a language of love, in order to define their own relationship, which is a more equal one than either of them could have expected in Messina.
If the relationship between Beatrice and Benedick is not presented as an ideal, it is nonetheless seen as preferable to the fragility of an idealised, romantic love such as Claudio’s with its tendency to collapse into loathing and disgust. And for Beatrice and Benedick to have wrested the language to their own ends in this way is in itself a cause for celebration.