On the significance of sense of self and society in Much Ado

The text of Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing is, in its essence, an amusing, profound commentary on the subject of critical judgement’s role in trust, justice, and love.  The play’s plot is derived from the fact that, as suggested by its title, the vast majority of the characters within it make errors in perception.  One such inaccurate instance of “nothing” nearly destroys the happiness of young lovers Claudio and Hero, and succeeds in causing significant chaos within their lives.  Another pair of lovers, however, manages to remedy the situation.  Beatrice and Benedick, two of the play’s main protagonists, are perhaps the only two characters to retain a true sense of self, alongside the ability to truly comprehend and take note of social weaknesses that is so rare in the play; it is this combination of strengths which enables them to see the hidden truth where Hero is concerned and to experience true love, thereby saving the play from tragedy.

It is more than evident that both Benedick and Beatrice harbour a refined sense of self.  While the former appears to thrive amongst the other men at the beginning of the play, one can see upon further examination that, even at this point, he differs markedly from them. To begin, he almost always understands the subjectivity of his own stance on a given issue.  For example, upon Claudio’s prompting him to divulge what he thinks of Hero, Benedick asks “Do you question me, as an honest man should do, for my simple true judgment; or would you have me speak after my custom, as being a professed tyrant to their sex?” (I, i, 145).  This goes to illustrate that Benedick introspects adequately to be aware of a personal bias that could be detrimental to truth.  He is honest with himself, and can identify trends in his thinking.  The other men, however, exhibit countless preconceptions without even knowing of them, and are therefore unable to make note of glaring, recurring errors in their judgment.  Claudio, for example, stresses that one should “Let every eye negotiate for itself and trust no agent” (II, i, 157), but fails to follow his own advice, readily succumbing to the lies of Don John.  Claudio’s flaws are more than evident to Benedick, however, who calls him out, saying “Ho! now you strike like the blind man” (II, i, 176), remarking, quite evidently, on Claudio’s inability to insightfully reason through a conflict.

Beatrice’s possessing a strong sense of self is also evident.  Her wit, to begin, instantly distinguishes her from the vast majority of the play’s other characters.  She also, however, blatantly and confidently proclaims her views on varied subjects, but is capable of acknowledging precisely when she has crossed the metaphorical line.  For example, she declines Don Pedro’s quasi-serious offer of marriage (II, i, 295), but quickly apologizes with, “But, I beseech your grace, pardon me: I was born to speak all mirth and no matter.”  Like Benedick, she has the ability to contemplate her own thoughts and actions, remedying any errors she makes prior to their wreaking havoc.

Both characters also comprehend the weaknesses inherent to certain social values, and the roles that such interpersonal rules can play in creating conflict.  In the world of Much Ado, it appears to be socially appropriate to have a set of carefully crafted, superficial norms.  Both Benedick and Beatrice look past these.  Benedick, unlike most of the other men, understands that it is unwise to make social assumptions.  For example, Claudio asks “Benedick, didst thou note the daughter of Signior Leonato?” (I, i, 143) to which Benedick replies, “I noted her not; but I looked on her.”  His recognizing this distinction – that between merely seeing someone and truly taking notice of that person – allows him to avoid making a fundamental error in judgment later in the play.  Benedick is also a man of objective assessments.  When Claudio states that “in mine eye she is the sweetest lady that I ever looked on” (I, i, 164), Benedick  says “I can see yet without spectacles and I see no such thing.”  In addition to this, Benedick is quick to ridicule such societal norms as frequently making vows, as evidenced by his mockingly mimicking Don Pedro and Claudio with “And, by my two faiths and troths, my lord, I spoke mine” (I, i, 203).  Finally, he is quite obviously of the opinion that only fools are unable to avoid the flaws that they point out in the outside world, as evidenced by “I do much wonder that one man, seeing how much another man is a fool when he dedicates his behaviors to love, will, after he hath laughed at such shallow follies in others, become the argument of his own scorn by falling in love” (II, iii, 7).

Beatrice, too, is quick to observe societal errors.  She mentions this to Leonato, saying, “I have a good eye, uncle; I can see a church by daylight” (II, i, 72).  Beatrice also advocates defying societal norms.  This is evident when she speaks to Hero and Leonato regarding Hero’s marital future.  She jokingly suggests that, should Hero be displeased with her father’s choice of a husband, she [Hero] should defy it, should “make another curtsy and say ‘Father, as it please me.'” despite the fact that “it is my cousin’s duty to make curtsy and say ‘Father, as it please you.'” (II, i, 47).  She mentions this again when she and Benedick are dancing – he suggests that it is important to follow the leaders in every good thing, to which she says “Nay, if they lead to any ill, I will leave them at the next turning” (II, i, 136).  She, finally, freely remarks upon the inadequacies of the male world when she says, “But manhood is melted into courtesies, valour into compliment, and men are only turned into tongue” (IV, i, 319).

It is by dint of these qualities – his ability to introspect and his understanding of the discrepancies of social behavior – that Benedick effectively manages to clear Hero of blame.  Benedick’s ability to distinguish between what is seen or heard and what is truly observed allows him to avoid making the fundamental error – that of judging Hero’s innocence solely by an exchange heard in darkness.  His individualistic stance, in this sense, prevents him from being tricked by Don John.  His care in always ensuring that his opinion is backed by fact also benefits Hero when her virtues are called into question – Benedick urges everyone to proceed with reason, stating, “Sir, sir, be patient.  For my part, I am so attired in wonder, I know not what to say” (IV, i, 147).  His observational skills allow him to accurately pinpoint Don John as the source of the problem (IV, i, 192), an integral contribution to the plan that ultimately proves Hero’s innocence.

Their perceptiveness and individualistic natures are also those qualities that enable Beatrice and Benedick to experience true love.  It has been said, variously, that love is not but the formation of a mutual bond, but also the betterment and preservation of each of the individuals within the bond.  Shakespeare remarks upon this concept in many of his sonnets, including Sonnet 116, in which it is stated that “Love is not love which alters when it alteration finds.”  This is precisely the case of Benedick and Beatrice.  The process by which they realize their love is entirely individualistic, despite societal influences, and they remain individuals even as they marry, which makes their union all the more spectacular.  It is by dint of a desire to improve the self that each of them accepts his or her love for the other – Beatrice bids “Adieu!” to two negative qualities, her pride and contempt (III, i, 112), and Benedick, too, says “I must not be thought proud” (II, iii, 211).  Beatrice also mentions that she believes Benedick’s worth “better than reportingly”(III, i, 119), which implies that her decision to love him was, ultimately, despite the influence of society, her own.  The question of whether or not Beatrice and Benedick’s love is in fact one born prior to the deception on the part of Don Pedro and his friends frequently arises.  However, as Henze notes in his writings on the subject, right deception is the kind of deception that brings an end to distrust; conflict is definitely eliminated with the deception of Beatrice and Benedick.  However, right deception only succeeds when  the conflict was occurring out of self-deception.  We can therefore say that Beatrice and Benedick were deceiving themselves in believing that each is the last person the other would marry, and that they had truly been interested in one another even prior to their friends’ involvement.

These characters, even in love, never lose their sense of individuality – when Benedick proposes to Beatrice, both slip into their previous opposing roles and engage in another battle of wits.  Astoundingly, however, they manage to function as one entity, moved by their love for one another.  Self-confident Benedick makes the challenge of his life on the basis of believing in someone other than himself – in Beatrice and her ability to see things as they are, in the wisdom behind her desires.  Beatrice, a woman determined to always carry out acts in her own name, grants Benedick the right to fight on her behalf.  So, both who were so certain in themselves and who remain so certain in themselves gain the means to trust one another; this trust is born out of true respect for the individualistic, virtuous values of the other partner.

It is evident, then, that even in the socially influential environment of Much Ado About Nothing, Beatrice and Benedick manage to retain their individualistic values, and manage to critically examine the world around them.  This leads to their being able to pinpoint their own errors as well as the mistakes of others; their desire to remedy the flaws that their wit enables them to detect leads to their preserving the integrity of Hero, the embodiment of wronged innocence.  Their capacity for introspection also permits them to, at last, objectively examine their feelings and to, through acknowledging each other’s virtues, form the trust needed for a profound breed of love.

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