Understand the Major Themes of 'Much Ado About Nothing'

Love and deception are key in this Shakespeare comedy

Anne Hathaway's cottage in Stratford upon Avon

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"Much Ado About Nothing" is often considered William Shakespeare's most lighthearted play. Published in 1600, this comedy comments on marriage and relationships, using sly behavior as a means of pushing along the engrossing plot. These are some of the major themes in "Much Ado About Nothing."

Portrayal of Love

Through his treatment of love in "​Much Ado About Nothing,"​ Shakespeare mocks the conventions of courtly love that were popular at the time.

Although Claudio and Hero’s marriage is central to the plot, their "love at first sight" relationship is the least interesting one in the play. Instead, the audience's attention is drawn to Benedick and Beatrice’s unromantic backbiting. This relationship seems more believable and enduring because it is a match of intellectual equals, not love based on superficiality.

By contrasting these two different relationship styles, Shakespeare manages to poke fun at the conventions of courtly, romantic love. Claudio uses highly contrived language when speaking of love, which is undermined by Benedick and Beatrice’s banter: “Can the world buy such a jewel?” says Claudio of Hero. “My dear Lady Disdain! Are you yet living?” says Benedick of Beatrice.

To make this clear to the audience, Benedick expresses his frustration with Claudio’s transparent, pompous rhetoric of love: “He was wont to speak plain and to the purpose, like an honest man and a soldier...His words are a very fantastical banquet, just so many strange dishes.”

Deception (for Bad and Good)

As the title suggests, there is a lot of fuss over very little in the play. After all, if Claudio weren’t so impetuous, Don John’s rather weak plan to ruin Don Pedro's reputation and disrupt the marriage of Claudio and Hero wouldn’t have worked at all. What makes the plot so intricate is the frequent use of deception via trickery, lies, written messages, eavesdropping, and spying. There is even an allusion to this in the play's title. In Shakespeare's era, the audience would have understood that "Nothing" is also a pun on "noting," meaning observing or overhearing.

The most obvious example of deception is when Don John falsely slanders Hero for his own mischief, which is countered by the friar’s plan to pretend that Hero is dead. The manipulation of Hero from both sides renders her a passive character throughout the play—she does very little on her own and becomes an interesting character only through the deceit of others.

Deception is also used as a force for good in the play, as shown through Beatrice and Benedick’s scenes where they overhear conversations. Here, the device is used to great comic effect and to manipulate the two lovers into accepting each other. The use of deception in their storyline is necessary because it is the only way they can be convinced to allow love into their lives.

It is interesting that all of "​Much Ado About Nothing's" characters are so willing to be deceived: Claudio doesn’t stop to suspect Don John’s actions, both Benedick and Beatrice are willing to completely change their worldviews after overhearing things about each other, and Claudio is willing to marry a complete stranger to appease Leonato. But, then again, it is a lighthearted Shakespearean comedy.