Characterization in Much Ado About Nothing

Instructor: Leslie McMurtry
In this lesson, we'll be looking at how Shakespeare used characterization in ''Much Ado About Nothing,'' looking mainly at the unofficial hero and heroine of the play, Benedick and Beatrice. The lesson concludes with a quiz to check how much you've learned.

Introduction to Much Ado About Nothing

Much Ado About Nothing was written by William Shakespeare, probably in late 1598, and has remained an audience favorite since its debut. Set in Messina, Italy, it involves a group of soldiers, Don Pedro, Benedick, Claudio, and Don Pedro's illegitimate brother Don John, visiting Leonato and his household. Benedick and Beatrice (Leonato's niece) have known each other for a long time, but it takes Claudio's newfound love for Hero (Leonato's daughter) to bring them together, as well as the evil plots of villainous Don John. Confused lawman Dogberry helps bring Don John's crimes to light.

Benedick

Benedick has the most lines in the play, and he's characterized from the start as a confirmed bachelor, saying, 'for truly I love none'. He is--and more importantly, believes himself to be--a very witty man who loves to talk. In the first half of the play, he demonstrates several times that anyone who tries to get him to talk seriously will have a hard time. He's particularly playful with Beatrice in many scenes and must have the last word.

Benedick

When Benedick overhears the trick that Leonato, Don Pedro, and Claudio are playing on him--letting him 'overhear' that Beatrice is in love with him--he transforms, both for comic effect and as an indication of how, unconsciously, he has loved her all along. His soliloquy is one of the best-beloved scenes in the play: 'When I said I would die a bachelor, I did not think I should live till I were married'. Benedick has also been characterized as a brave soldier and a good man, mainly by Claudio and Don Pedro, but it isn't until he stands up to Claudio to defend Beatrice and Hero in Act 5 that he demonstrates his personal courage.

Beatrice

Beatrice is an unmarried woman, Leonato's niece, well-known for her wit. Although characters sometimes find her exasperating, many also find her attractive. Don Pedro, for example, floats the possibility of proposing to her.

DON PEDRO: Will you have me, lady?

BEATRICE: No, my lord, unless I might have another for working days; your grace is too costly to wear every day. But I beseech your grace pardon me. I was born to speak all mirth and no matter.

A portrait depicting Beatrice in
A portrait depicting Beatrice in Much Ado

In this exchange, Beatrice reveals a lot about herself, being honest and yet not wishing to offend Don Pedro. She's being modest and yet frank, and also being somewhat self-critical by showing she is aware that she talks a lot of nonsense.

Like Benedick, Beatrice enacts a joyous transformation when she 'overhears' that he is in love with her. She becomes much more serious when Claudio falsely accuses Hero, her cousin, of being unfaithful to her fiancé. 'Oh God, that I were a man! I would eat his heart in the market-place'. Beatrice urges Benedick to defend Hero's honor, by killing Claudio if necessary. Beatrice's webs of witty words fall away when she defends something in which she really believes.

Claudio, Don Pedro, and Leonato

Don Pedro, Claudio, and Leonato represent the established order in Much Ado About Nothing. Don Pedro is a valiant leader, well-liked by all except his disgruntled brother, Don John. Claudio is his protégé, young and naïve. He is easily convinced by Don John that Don Pedro flirts with Hero on his own behalf, and he is once again convinced by Don John to call into question Hero's faithfulness. Even though Hero protests her innocence, Claudio does not believe her. 'But you are more intemperate in your blood / Than Venus or those pampered animals / That rage in savage sensuality'. He eventually apologizes for his behavior, but Claudio's character is strongly marked by this shallowness.

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