Love in Much Ado About Nothing: Theme, Analysis & Types

Instructor: SCARLETT BROOKS

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

This lesson will examine the theme of love in ''Much Ado About Nothing'' by defining courtly love and comparing it to other kinds of love in the play. When finished, you will be able to analyze the different kinds of love in ''Much Ado''.

Courtly Love v. Carnal Love

The things the characters in Much Ado About Nothing do in the name of love must seem strange indeed to the modern reader. Claudio decides he wants to marry Hero without knowing her well and then violently rejects her based on some very sketchy evidence of her unfaithfulness. Then, Hero goes to extreme lengths - pretending to be dead - to restore her honor and agrees to marry Claudio after all the confusion is cleared up. And we the audience are supposed to believe that they live happily ever after!

The concept of courtly love helps make these plot elements coherent. Courtly love refers to a set of formal relationship rules and rituals that dictated how upper-class men and women were supposed to socialize at court, which was the castle where the king both lived and carried out his political duties. Courtly love is closely related to the Code of Chivalry, a set of rules that guided a knight's conduct. The Code of Chivalry demanded that a knight serve his king bravely and loyally, defend the Church, protect the weak, and be gentle with ladies. A chivalrous knight would choose a lady as the object of his devotion and entertain her at court, perform heroic feats in her name, and lay down his life to defend her honor.

But there was a catch.

A knight could never know his lady carnally - that is, sleep with her. Keeping the relationship pure was a test of the knight's self-discipline. The lady he chose as the object of his devotion was supposed to be something like a goddess: beautiful, otherworldly, and unattainable. However, there was a downside for the lady in that she did not get to be ''real''. A passive object of worship, she was supposed to torture the knight by keeping him in a constant state of unconsummated desire. Giving in to carnal desire would prove her unworthy of his devotion and destroy the heart and soul of the courtly romance.

Claudio and Hero: Courtly Lovers

In Much Ado About Nothing, Claudio and Hero are types in the courtly formula, with the difference that marriage rather than infinite flirtation is the goal. Like a knight, Claudio has just returned from war and is ready to socialize at Leonato's ''court'' with the prince, Leonato, and Leonato's family. Claudio quickly decides he loves Hero and wants to marry her, and the prince agrees to help him win her by courting her in disguise, as Claudio, at the masquerade ball.

Courtliness explains why Claudio falls in love so quickly (Hero is like a goddess), why he doesn't court Hero in person (to maintain a physical distance), why Hero is discussed as an object to be won and ''given'' to Claudio, why her sexual purity is so explicitly discussed, why Claudio rejects her so violently when her purity is questioned, and why Hero goes to such extreme lengths to restore her honor.

Borachio and Margaret: Carnal Lovers

Borachio and Margaret's relationship is the polar opposite of Claudio's and Hero's. It is based on carnal love. In many of Shakespeare's plays, carnal love is associated with the lower classes. As Shakespeare tells it, chastity was not as important for lower-class women as for upper-class women, probably because there were no assets in play. Think about it: for a wealthy man, a woman's purity would be very important because he would not want his land and property to pass to non-biological offspring. As we see in the play, a man intensely feared being ''cuckolded'', or cheated on, not only because it would make him a laughingstock among other guys, but also because it carried the risk of his being tricked into taking care of another man's child.

Considering the differences in sexual norms among the upper classes versus the lower classes, it is unremarkable that Margaret would agree to make love at a window and call out Claudio's name in order to further Borachio's scheme against the courtly lovers.

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