Appearance vs Reality in Much Ado About Nothing


Scarlett has a Ph.D. in English and has taught literature and composition for both high school and college.

This lesson will analyze the theme of appearance vs. reality in ''Much Ado About Nothing'' as it is developed through dramatic irony, situational irony, and sarcasm. Classifying the types of irony will enhance readers' understanding of the play.

The Meaning of ''Nothing''

In Much Ado About Nothing, nothing is ever quite as it seems. In fact, the word ''nothing'' is a pun on ''noting,'' which in Shakespeare's day meant ''overhearing or eavesdropping.'' Eavesdropping is a major plot device in the play and exploits the inconsistency between appearances and reality. Despite the confusion that eavesdropping causes, all the lovers come to a happy ending when the deceptive appearances are dispelled. Shakespeare develops the theme of appearance versus reality through dramatic irony, sarcasm, and situational irony, thereby warning his audience not to place one-hundred percent trust in their eyes and ears.

Dramatic Irony

Dramatic irony is a type of irony in which the audience knows more than the characters. Dramatic irony gets the audience emotionally involved in the story through suspense. We want to know when the characters will figure out what we already know, and when they do, how they will react.

In Much Ado, Don John's schemes against Claudio's and Hero's romance create dramatic irony. In Act I, scene ii, he tells Conrade, ''I had rather be a canker in a in a hedge than a/ rose in (Don Pedro's) grace, and it better fits my blood to be/ disdained of all than to fashion a carriage to rob/ love from any. In this, though I cannot be said to be/ a flattering honest man, it must not be denied but I/ am a plain-dealing villain'' (I.ii.25-30).

Don Pedro and friends are not privy to this conversation; only the audience, Don John, and his friends know about his grudge. Despite Don John's claim that he is a ''plain-dealing villain,'' the audience knows that he is prepared to use deception to achieve his objective. We eagerly follow the plot to see when Don John's true nature will be exposed.


Sarcasm is another type of irony in which the speaker says the opposite of what he or she means or intends to convey a double meaning. Sarcasm is linked to puns, which Shakespeare uses consistently throughout the play. A pun is a play on words; often the speaker will invoke a word with multiple meanings with the intention of conveying several meanings at once. Sarcasm is most evident in Benedick's and Beatrice's Act IV, scene i encounter, just after Beatrice asks Benedick to kill Claudio to prove his love for her. Speaking of Don Pedro's and Claudio's public slander of Hero, she says, ''Princes and counties! Surely a princely testimony,/ a goodly count, Count Comfect, a sweet/ gallant surely!'' (IV.i.329-331).

Beatrice is being heavily sarcastic here; she thinks Don Pedro's and Claudio's actions did not befit their titles. ''Count Comfect'' is also a pun on the noun ''confection'' and the verb ''confect.'' The noun form is most common and is another word for candy. The verb form means ''to make something up''--a lie, for example. This is a brilliant pun because it reinforces Beatrice's true meaning: ''Manhood is melted into curtsies, valor into/ compliment, and men are only turned into tongue,/ and trim ones, too'' (IV.i.333-335). She means that manhood as enacted by Don Pedro and Claudio is all ''candy''--polished manners and polite words--but no action. She believes their exterior presentation is deceptive because they have no true honor.

Situational Irony

Situational irony is a type of irony in which the outcome of events is different from what the audience expected. It's kind of like a plot twist. Shakespeare uses situational irony mainly in connection with the Benedick-Beatrice romance; they seem to hate each other but actually fall in love. However, the use of irony here is not very compelling because the reader can easily predict this outcome.

A more interesting use of situational irony in Much Ado concerns Master Constable Dogberry and his sidekick Verges. These characters are typical Shakespearean clowns, low-class characters who appear in the play for comic relief. But Shakespeare actually does something interesting with his clowns: he often makes them the voice of truth and wisdom. They can say things the high-class characters don't necessarily want to hear precisely because they don't have to be taken seriously.

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