Symbols & Motifs in Much Ado About Nothing

Instructor: Ginna Wilkerson

Virginia has a Master's degree in Curriculum and Development and a Ph.D. in English

Shakespeare's comedy 'Much Ado About Nothing' focuses on the positive and negative aspects of deception. This lesson will explore symbols and motifs, including the strong motif of the mask.

Narrative Summary

Two elderly brothers, Leonato and Antonio, each have a daughter of marriageable age: Hero and Beatrice. Beatrice is very clever, and embroiled in a war of words with the equally eloquent Benedick. The gentle and shy Hero is courted by the returned soldier Claudio. Don Pedro and his illegitimate brother Don John participate in the arrangement of Hero's marriage, each causing trouble in his own way.

The tragic climax of this mostly comedic narrative is when Hero, at the site of her marriage, is falsely accused of infidelity. Then her own death is falsely reported, and her cousin Beatrice brought forward for marriage in disguise. The entire mess is eventually straightened out with the unwitting help of the humorous characters of Dogberry and Verges. Each girl is delivered to her rightful and appropriate suitor.


A motif in literature is a recurring item, event, or way of behaving that helps the reader understand a theme portrayed in the narrative.


In Shakespeare's comedy Much Ado About Nothing, the mask is a recurring image supporting the larger concept of deception and counterfeit. The masked ball that takes place allows deception and false rumors to come into play and muddle the intentions of the various players in the story.

The Motif of the Masked Character

Characters are literally masked and then unmasked, which mirrors the various deceptive messages that fly about the stage. The entire plot is driven by deception and false information.

Even the faked wedding after Hero's falsely reported death is based on deceit.


In the pronunciation of Shakespeare's time, the word 'nothing' in the title would be pronounced more like 'noting', as in observing, taking note of, or even eavesdropping. Benedick and Beatrice each overhear a conversation about how much the other is in love, helping to overcome their own reservations about declaring feelings for one another. The entire business about Hero being a fallen woman comes from a faked love scene that Don John arranges for Claudio and Don Pedro to overhear. Almost every character is somehow affected by overheard or faked information.

The Motif of Noting or Eavesdropping
The Motif of Noting

Happily, the watchmen overhear the truth of the faked love scene, and are able to clear up the muddle at the end.


A literary symbol is something that stands for, or represents, a larger concept in the work. You should also make note of the idea of symbolic action, which means that whatever happens to the symbol tells us how the author is viewing the symbolized.


Let's see how this works with one important symbol in Much Ado About Nothing. Remember that this play takes place among the nobility, or high court society. Not surprisingly, both men and women are concerned with outward looks and appearances. Fashionable clothing and clever speech indicate status. And status is most important in deciding whom to marry, and whether a father should consent to a daughter's marriage.

Even Dogberry is conscious of clothes representing status, as he proudly states that he has two sets of clothing.

Fashion, as the symbol, is always changing, and can be deceptive in showing a person's true character. So the symbolized in this example, love relationships, also change too quickly, often based on false or misunderstood information.

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