Deception and dramatic irony in Much Ado About Nothing

Although the characters might be fooled by the many deceptions in the play, the audience seems to know better, but Andrea Varney suggests that our role as observers is more complex and uncertain.

In Much Ado About Nothing, Shakespeare sets up a fairy-tale contrast between two half-brothers – Don Pedro and the illegitimate Don John. As in many plays of this era, the ‘bastard’ is cast as the villain while Don Pedro, the Prince of Aragon, seems to be the reliable face of authority in Messina.

Within this symmetrical structure, we might expect the good Prince to be open and honest, while Don John and his cronies will be duplicitous. However, it soon becomes clear that deception and self-deception, visual and verbal confusion, are rife everywhere in Messina – from Don Pedro’s benevolent schemes to bring two pairs of lovers together, to Don John’s vindictive plots to pull them apart.

A ‘plain-dealing villain’ and a disguised prince

Don Pedro seizes on the idea of ‘disguise’ as soon as he hears of Claudio’s romantic interest in Hero. With honest intentions, he offers to play Claudio’s ‘part’ and woo Hero on his behalf at the masked ‘revelling’ that evening (1.1.320–21). By contrast, Don John seems weary at the thought of disguise. He describes himself paradoxically as a ‘plain-dealing’ villain (1.3.32) and declares ‘I cannot hide what I am’ (1.3.13).

Shakespeare takes up this notion in the tragedy of King Lear, with another pair of half-brothers. The illegitimate Edmund plots his father’s overthrow, but honest Edgar disguises himself as a beggar to be true to Gloucester. We are forced to recognise that honesty can be malevolent, disguise can be well meaning, and seemingly innocent costumes can conceal dark purposes. In place of clear oppositions, Shakespeare blurs the lines between truth and fabrication, identity and performance, knowledge and misunderstanding.

Monkeys and Cats at a Masked Ball

Monkeys and Cats at a Masked Ball

A topsy-turvy scene of masks and disguises in a Flemish oil painting of 1632.

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Copyright: © Monkeys and Cats at a Masked Ball, 1632 (oil on panel) (see 204408), Flemish School, (17th century) / Private Collection / © Lawrence Steigrad Fine Arts, New York / Bridgeman Images

The masked ball: to ‘know me, and not know me’

Rather than moralising on the evils of deception, the masked ball in Much Ado About Nothing encourages us, from the outset, to relish the joy of trickery. With its choreographed couples and theatrical display, the ‘revelling’ is a sanctioned part of the elegant world of Messina, just as masks were part of the social fabric in Venice and elsewhere in Europe, when Shakespeare was writing. Reassured by the feeling that we’re in league with the Prince, we relax and enjoy the confusion from our privileged place on the sidelines. Applauding Shakespeare’s masterful use of dramatic irony, we take mischievous pleasure in knowing more than those on stage.

Friendship album of Moyses Walens

Friendship album of Moyses Walens

A travelling troupe of masked players, a common sight in 16th-century Venice.

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In this topsy-turvy world, there is a constant sense of paradox and playful contradiction: people tell home truths under cover of masks, and truth is misread as deception. Beatrice insults Benedick, pretending not to know it’s him: ‘She told me, not thinking I had been myself, that I was the Prince’s jester’ (2.1.242–43). But we suspect that she said it precisely because she knew who she was talking to. In fact, Benedick notes that it’s possible, at the same time, to ‘know … and not know’ a person in Messina (2.1.204).

Concealed behind his ‘visor’ (2.1.86), Don Pedro speaks of love to Hero, and we later learn that she has accepted him ‘in [Claudio’s] name’ (2.1.274). Both Borachio and Don John, ‘know’ which man is Claudio, but pretend to think he’s Benedick. Fooled into thinking his disguise has worked, Claudio says, ‘You know me well I am he’. Don John then maliciously claims that Don Pedro wooed Hero ‘for himself’, saying he ‘heard him swear his affection’ (2.1.162–74).

‘Trust no agent’

In a world where the grounds for knowledge seem so shifting and uncertain, characters rightly mistrust what they see and hear. Convinced that his friend has betrayed him, Claudio vows to ‘Let every eye negotiate for himself / And trust no agent’ (2.1.178–79). He wants direct, reliable proof, but this very idea is prompted by the unreliable words of Don John.

The terms ‘know’, ‘proof’ and ‘truth’ echo throughout the play, but so do ‘fashion’, ‘show’ and ‘seeming’. Words and surface appearances are the ‘agents’ people must use to ‘negotiate’ their understanding of the world, but they’re fraught with double meaning.

As the plot unravels, it becomes more and more clear that the social and verbal graces enacted at the court are a thin and self-conscious performance. Claudio’s seemingly honourable character, his stiff proposals of ‘love’ (1.1.211), seem insincere and empty when we see how willingly he and the Prince will take on their brutal role in publicly shaming Hero (3.2.113).

The parallel garden scenes

In looking for deception, the characters repeatedly get things wrong, seeing trickery where there is none, and proof when they’re being deceived. This has near-tragic results later when Hero is wrongly maligned on the basis of Don John’s deceptions, but it is brilliantly played for comedy in the parallel garden scenes ‘directed’ by Don Pedro (2.1.370). Like the masked ball, the concealed arbours of Messina’s gardens are part of the Prince’s refined world, but a perfect stage for dissembling.

Elizabethan gardening manual with images of mazes, arbours and pleached bowers

Elizabethan gardening manual with images of mazes, arbours and pleached bowers

A shady arbour on the title page of Thomas Hill’s The Gardeners Labyrinth, 1577.

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The friends conspire to bring Benedick and Beatrice ‘into a mountain of affection’ (2.1.367), by convincing them each loves the other but is desperate to hide it. They exploit the idea of deceptive appearances to suggest that Beatrice’s feelings are at odds with her ‘outward behaviours’ (2.3.97). Benedick begins to suspect a ‘gull’, but dismisses it on the basis that the ‘white-bearded fellow speaks it’ (2.3.118–19). He mistakes his friends’ deceptions for ‘truth’ (2.3.222) but, convinced that Beatrice loves him, he sees ‘double meaning’ in her insults, when there is none intended (2.3.258).

The ‘same net’ is soon ‘spread’ (2.3.213–14) for Beatrice as she hides in the ‘pleached bower’ to eavesdrop on Hero and Ursula (3.1.7). There is joy in seeing ‘modest’ Hero (2.1.375) come to life as a skilled accomplice for Don Pedro, and humour in seeing the cynics give in to the idea of love.

Boydell's Collection of Prints illustrating Shakespeare's works

Boydell's Collection of Prints illustrating Shakespeare's works

Beatrice eavesdrops on Hero and Ursula: Much Ado About Nothing, Act 3, Scene 1 by Reverend Matthew William Peters.

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Marriage as ‘merely a dumb-show’

However, at this point in the play, our own trust in Don Pedro might begin to waver. There is a sense of unease when Beatrice talks so quickly of ‘taming [her] wild heart’ to Benedick’s ‘loving hand’ (3.1.112). The use of hunting imagery – ‘angling’, ‘traps’, ‘treacherous bait’ (3.1.26; 106; 28) – suggests that something strong and free has been captured and constrained. The puns and double entendres, the ‘skirmish of wit’ (1.1.63) between Benedick and Beatrice somehow seem more genuine than Claudio’s stiff clichés as he tries to talk ‘like a lover’ (1.1.306). We have mixed feelings about the witty pair submitting to those same conventions.

Perhaps more importantly, despite our vantage point, we can no longer be quite sure of what we’ve seen. Have Benedick and Beatrice been playfully tricked into admitting their true feelings? Or have these merry rebels been duped into marriage for their friends’ entertainment? Indeed, the very idea of true love now seems open to question, as it becomes just another role to play. Using theatrical language, Don Pedro hints that their ‘dotage’ might be ‘merely a dumb-show’, a strangely silent performance (2.3.218).

Much ado about noting

At the heart of these garden scenes is a trivial exchange which subtly highlights the difficulty of reading outward signs. Preparing to play his song, Balthasar juggles with the word ‘note’: ‘There’s not a note of mine that’s worth the noting,’ and Don Pedro takes up the word-play, ‘Notes, notes, forsooth, and nothing’ (2.3.54–57).

By echoing the play’s title, Much Ado About Nothing, Shakespeare makes us sit up and take notice, revealing the double meaning at the heart of the play. On the one hand, the title suggests that the plot is a fuss about nothing – a series of deceptions which turn out to be untrue. Yet ‘nothing’ in Shakespeare’s England could also be used bawdily for a woman’s lack of a penis, and the play involves much ‘ado’ about women and sex. Most importantly, ‘nothing’ at this time was pronounced the same as ‘noting’ – meaning paying attention or taking note.

Broadside ballad in 'Praise of Nothing'

Broadside ballad in 'Praise of Nothing'

This witty 17th-century ballad takes on the paradoxical task of making something out of nothing.

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These puns emphasise the need for us, in our role as observers, to ‘note’ things carefully, interpreting what we see, not trusting first impressions. But because ‘noting’ and ‘nothing’ are so similar, they also unsettle our faith in being able to tell what’s meaningful and what’s nonsense. Balthasar’s song reminds us that ‘Men were deceivers ever’ (2.3.63). Words and appearances, in the theatre and the real world, are open to manipulation.

Villainous plots: ‘What men daily do, not knowing what they do!’

As the mood shifts from comedy to corruption, this becomes all the more crucial – since noting and misreading, seeming and dissembling become a matter of life and death. Borachio talks coldly of his plans to ‘cross’ Hero and Claudio’s marriage by providing ‘proof enough to misuse the Prince, to vex Claudio, to undo Hero and kill Leonato’ (2.2.28–29). He will stage a scene at Hero’s chamber window, with Margaret wooing Borachio while dressed in ‘Hero’s garments’ (5.1.238), to make Hero seem disloyal. Don John directs the performance and his audience falls for it.

As in earlier comic scenes, there is a heavy irony in the characters’ misplaced distrust as well as their misplaced conviction. Don John plays on the idea – so common at this time – that women are artful deceivers, and Claudio readily believes that Hero hides her ‘cunning sin’ beneath a convincing ‘show of truth’ (4.1.35–36). Aware of the dangers of ‘seeming’ and ‘exterior shows’ (4.1.40; 56), he misinterprets Don John’s false show as proof of Hero’s deception. Having savoured the irony of the characters’ errors in previous scenes, we now look on in horror as the innocent Hero is denounced as a ‘rotten orange’ at her own wedding ceremony (4.1.32).

Niccholes’s Discourse of Marriage and Wiving

Niccholes’s Discourse of Marriage and Wiving

Alexander Niccholes wryly notes how hard it is to choose ‘a good wife from a bad’, since women are so deceptive.

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Crucially also, Don Pedro is deceived. He confirms his brother’s lies, saying, ‘Myself, my brother, and this grieved Count / Did see her, hear her … last night’ (4.1.89–90). As the Prince joins in the slander, our former sense of allegiance to him as a well-meaning trickster becomes morally problematic. He seems to be not just the victim of his brother’s deceptions but also a guilty party. The failings of the witnesses on stage alert us to our own failings as observers, and we feel we have misjudged things.

The Watch

Through careful ‘noting of the lady’, the Friar sees the truth, realising that Hero ‘is guiltless’ (4.1.158; 168). But rather than providing a new model for honesty and integrity, he also uses deception as a means to achieve good ends. Suggesting that they should ‘publish it’ that Hero ‘is dead indeed,’ he hopes to prompt Claudio to change ‘slander’ for ‘remorse’ (4.1.204; 211). Initially, Don Pedro continues to trust his own eyes, insisting that Hero ‘was charg’d with nothing / But what was true, and very full of proof’ (5.1.104–05).

But the tragedy is deflected by the naïve ‘Watch’, whose name suggests their important role in observation and noting. The truth of Hero’s innocence is uncovered by those who appear the least discerning. Borachio confesses, ‘I have deceived even your very eyes: What your wisdoms could not discover, these shallow fools have brought to light’ (5.1.232–34).

So the Friar’s plan is successful, but perhaps the damage is done. It’s hard to accept Claudio’s claim that he ‘sinn’d’ only in ‘mistaking’ (5.1.273–74). Misinterpretation no longer seems a simple error but a potentially murderous action.

‘Let’s have a dance ere we are married’

Even as these things come to light, there is one final deception. Hero’s father Leonato offers Claudio a second chance at marriage, saying ‘My brother hath a daughter/ Almost the copy of my child that’s dead’ (5.1.288–89). Hero is instructed to ‘come hither masked’ (5.4.12), pretending to be her own cousin. The comic resolution promised by a wedding will be no more authentic than the rest of the play.

Claudio first chose Hero by noting her looks: ‘In mine eye, she is the sweetest lady that ever I look’d on’ (1.1.186–87; 162). He then misjudged her as a ‘common stale’ (4.1.65) by relying on appearances. As a punishment, he must now commit to his bride without seeing ‘her face’ first (5.4.54–55). Rather than being revealed in all her innocence, Hero is accepted on the basis that she’s someone else. This marriage seems uncomfortably close to the earlier masked ball, where Hero agreed to a proposal from a man in disguise – perhaps Claudio, perhaps Don Pedro. And it highlights the fact that nuptial arrangements in Messina revolve around a polite pretence. Words said in ‘the name of love’ (1.1.300) disguise the need to secure a profitable ‘alliance’ (2.1.318).

Although it is a stage-trick, the wedding is also very much like a real marriage in early modern Italy. Cesare Vecellio’s costume guide (1598) shows how brides in Venice were masked by a black veil before their wedding. Marriage – Don Pedro’s excuse for all the benign deception – seems tainted by the idea of duplicity and theatrical double dealing.

16th-century costume guide

16th-century costume guide

A Venetian lady masked by a black veil before her wedding, in Vecellio’s guide to global fashions, 1598.

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‘The author of all’ deception

The comedy is also compromised by the fact that ‘Don John’, the supposed ‘author of all’ the deception, is ‘fled and gone’ from Messina (5.2.98–99). The villain is still at large, reinforcing Balthasar’s warning that men are ‘deceivers ever’.

Perhaps more disconcertingly though, the word ‘author’ might remind us that it is not Don John, but Shakespeare who planned the deceptions in the play. Theatre itself is implicated in the many false shows we’ve witnessed. Through dramatic irony, we were lulled into believing that we could see beyond the costumes. But as the play draws to a close, it’s hard to feel so confident that we can tell proof from performance.

  • Andrea Varney
  • Andrea Varney has a PhD on the dictionaries of Shakespeare’s day and the culture of translation. She is an experienced sixth-form English teacher and now works on Discovering Literature in the Learning Team at the British Library.

The text in this article is available under the Creative Commons License.

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