Explore the different types of love presented in Shakespeare’s ‘Much Ado About Nothing,’ considering how our views of love differ from those of an Elizabethan audience. Refer to at least two extracts in your answer.
Love is a common theme in Shakespeare’s comedies, with the action of the play often following a similar pattern: love is declared, is challenged in some way and is finally reasserted in the act of marriage. ‘Much Ado About Nothing’ is no exception and presents this plot structure through the pairings of Claudio and Hero, and Benedick and Beatrice. These couples illustrate two different types of love, and their portrayed experiences are revealing of Elizabethan attitudes and beliefs regarding love.
Claudio and Hero provide us with an example of a swiftly progressing love which culminates in marriage little more than a few weeks after they have first met. For an Elizabethan audience the concept of love at first sight would have been widely regarded as a valid possibility in life. The speed with which the two young characters move from strangers to husband and wife allows Shakespeare to present the courting process within the society of nobility. Such a rapid progression is commented on by Claudio as he explains his newfound love – ‘I would have salv’d it with a longer treatise’ (I.i.289). However, it seems that once the first pangs of love occur, the action moves onto the next stage in the process. There are many rules and regulations when it comes to expressing love for another. This can be seen in Claudio’s consequent actions; rather than approach Hero himself, it is preferable for his friend to woo her on his behalf, in the words of Don Pedro, ‘I will break with her and with her father’ (I.i.283). In today’s society the procedure of asking permission from the father of a prospective wife is often seen as old-fashioned and is nowhere near as common a practice as in Shakespeare’s day.
Through speech an Elizabethan nobleman would be expected to demonstrate intelligence and wit with the impression of spontaneity. In the same way, when attracting a woman he would be expected to impress with lavish and clever language. Much importance is placed on the language of love expected from a suitor within the play. Shakespeare’s narration reflects the qualities of such language by switching from prose to iambic pentameter, a rhythmical form more fitting for descriptions of love. Don Pedro reminds Claudio of the power of a lover’s words as they discuss his intentions towards Hero, ‘Thou wilt be like a lover presently, / And tire the hearer with a book of words (I.i.280-1). As a young, inexperienced man, Claudio clearly needs the help of his friend and is naturally grateful to have gained an ally in his endeavours. Don Pedro’s role in the relationship of Claudio and Hero brings attention to the importance placed on the intervention of a third person. Again, this is a practice not particularly common in modern society, at least not with any successful results.
Benedick and Beatrice’s relationship differs from that of Claudio and Hero in the history the two have between them. There is a reference to a previous courtship in which Beatrice feels she was treated badly. This history between them results in the portrayal of a more mature relationship and a love that is formed through similarities in characters and mutual beliefs. Before the two characters fall in love they share the attitude of adversity towards the idea of marriage and falling in love, Beatrice claims that she would ‘rather hear my dog bark at a crow than a man swear he loves me'(I.i.107-108). As a result they are constantly rebuked and made fun of for holding such a low opinion of marriage. The reaction of other characters towards the two cynics suggests that marriage is the ultimate symbol of love and should be the goal to which all aspire to, a belief that is reinforced when Benedick and Beatrice are eventually proved wrong and succumb to the powers of love themselves. In Shakespeare’s time marriage would have been the only way for women to better themselves financially and socially. Men would also have gained status by marrying and thus providing heirs to any property and wealth. With this in mind, there seems less emphasis on the love aspect of marriage than the idealistic impressions of marriage in the play would have us believe. To return to the relation of Shakespeare’s portrayal of love to a modern society, marriage as a representation of love no longer has such significance, with equal respect given to single and married individuals.
The power of Cupid is frequently referred to in relation to both couples. This power is often transferred to a third party that intervenes to aid the progression of love. Don Pedro is at the forefront of this matchmaking when he decides to bring together Benedick and Beatrice, ‘If we can do this, Cupid is no longer an archer; his glory shall be ours, for we are the only love-gods’ (II.i.355-357). By tricking each character with lies about the other, they are manipulated into falling in love. Far from the natural concept of falling in love uncontrollably, Don Pedro and Hero command the feelings of Benedick and Beatrice through created scenarios. It is the power of calculated words that actually take effect, as noted by Hero as she discusses the plot with Ursula, ‘Of this matter / Is Cupid’s crafty arrow made, / That only wounds by hearsay (III.i.21-23). This level of secrecy seems characteristic of court society at the time, a level of intervention which ultimately helps or hinders.
The reactions and descriptions of people in love within the play suggest a darker side of love, often characterised by physical symptoms. For example, Hero collapses at the very thought of being accused of infidelity. Also, Don Pedro and Hero both refer to the supposed noticeable difference in appearance of their lovesick friends. On proposing not to tell Beatrice of Benedick’s love for her, she concludes that he will ‘consume away in sighs, waste inwardly’ (III.i.78). Strangely, Benedick and Beatrice seem drawn to the idea of the other suffering from the pain of an unrequited love. The image of Benedick wasting away clearly has a powerful impression on Beatrice who almost immediately falls in love with him. Having overheard talk of Benedick’s anguish (as well as his excellent qualities as a gentleman and soldier) she begins to think of marriage, ‘To bind our loves up in a holy band’ (III.i.114). She also mentions the ‘taming’ of her ‘wild heart’ (III.i.112) as a result of Benedick’s love, a phrase that brings to mind the later play of ‘The Taming of the Shrew.’ In both plays, it seems that the love of a man is able to tame an outspoken ‘shrewish’ character, a belief that many in an Elizabethan audience would have shared.
‘Much Ado About Nothing’ presents us with two pairings of lover that demonstrate two different experiences of love, both governed by societal codes of conduct that no longer have significance in modern society. In contrast, Claudio and Hero show a speedy, formal process of courting, while Benedick and Beatrice represent a more drawn out, resisting relationship. While both couplings suffer the consequences of intervention of others, the latter marry purely as a result of meddling friends. It seems that love in the play is concerned more with superficial appearances and falsely created scenarios than actual feelings. Views of love in the play clearly differ from modern day opinion, but this is not to say that we cannot relate to the play because we are not part of an Elizabethan audience; our codes of conduct in dating and matchmaking have merely evolved to suit today’s society.
The Norton Shakespeare, Stephen Greenblatt (Oxford University Press, 1997)
Extracts – I.i.271-302