Shakespeare’s treatment of love in Much Ado About Nothing differs from his other romantic comedies. Sure, it shares the same stagy plot, which finishes with the lovers finally getting back together, but Shakespeare also mocks the conventions of courtly love which was popular at the time.
Although Claudio and Hero’s courtly marriage is central to the plot, their relationship is the least interesting thing in the play. Instead, our attention is drawn to Benedick and Beatrice’s unromantic backbiting – it is this relationship that seems more believable and enduring.
By contrasting these two different types of love, 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.
As an audience, we are supposed to share Benedick’s 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.”
As the title suggests, there is a lot of fuss over very little in the play – after all, if Claudio wasn’t so impetuous, Don John’s rather weak plan wouldn’t have worked at all! What makes the plot so intricate is the use of deception throughout.
The most obvious example is when Don John falsely slanders Hero for his own mischief, which is countered by the Friar’s deception of pretending Hero is dead. The manipulation of Hero from both sides renders her a passive character throughout the play – she does very little and only becomes an interesting character through the other character’s deceptions.
Deception is also used as a force for good in the play, as in Beatrice and Benedick’s overhearing scenes. Here, the deception is used to great comic effect and to manipulate the two lovers into accepting each other. The use of deception to manipulate these characters is necessary because it is the only way they could be convinced to allow love into their lives.
It is interesting that all of Much Ado’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 world view after the overhearing scenes, and Claudio is willing to marry a complete stranger to appease Leonato. Deception is weaved so closely into the play that it becomes second nature to its characters – indeed, the word “nothing” in the play’s title is believed to be a pun on the word “noting” (reflecting the use of written messages, eavesdropping and spying). Both words would have been pronounced similarly in the late 16th century.