Synopsis and Commentary 2

Platonic Friendship and Sexual Love

In Much Ado About Nothing Shakespeare draws a contrast between platonic and sexual love in order to show the complexities involved in both. Sexual and platonic love fight for supremacy in the play; we are constantly having to ask whether the characters are more loyal to their own or to the opposite sex.

As in all his plays, Shakespeare arranges his characters in groups. In Much Ado About Nothing there are four: the family of Leonato, Antonio, Hero and Beatrice with Margaret and Ursula associated with it; the young men returning from victory on the battlefield, Don Pedro, Claudio and Benedick; the villain Don John and his comrades Borachio and Conrade and the inept constable Dogberry with his side-kick Verges. The Friar occupies the isolated position given to most of the clergymen in Shakespeare. Within these networks Shakespeare sets the crucial relationships of the play: Hero and Beatrice, Don Pedro, Claudio and Benedick, and Benedick and Beatrice.

We are told that Hero and Beatrice are close friends, but there is little evidence of this in their behaviour to each other until Act 4 Scene 1. Before this point it is up to a director to decide how much affection to show between them. Hero barely speaks until Act 3 Scene 1 when she and Ursula are tricking Beatrice into believing that Benedick is in love with her. Alone with one other woman, Hero seems to find a voice; and what she says is occasionally surprising. Hero is meant to be goading her cousin, who can hear every word she and Ursula say, but there are moments in which she seems to be overdoing it. Hero enters with spirit into her critique of Beatrice's character and insults her more than is necessary for the plot to succeed:

"Nature never framed a woman's heart
Of prouder stuff than that of Beatrice.
Disdain and scorn ride sparkling in her eyes,
Misprizing what they look on, and her wit
Values itself so highly that to her
All matter else seems weak. She cannot love,
Nor take no shape nor project of affection,
She is so self-endeared." (3.1.49- 56)

There is a grain of truth in this: Beatrice can be scornful and disdainful, as she was in her encounter with Benedick in Act 1 Scene 1. Hero is showing a sharp perceptiveness, which before now we have equated with her cousin. However, she is basing her comments on external appearance: Beatrice also has moments of private vulnerability, as in 1.1.136-37 when she says of Benedick, "You always end with a jade's trick; I know you of old". Hero is making the same mistake as Claudio in judging by appearances. Because a trick is being played we are not meant to take Hero's words as seriously as we otherwise should, but nevertheless she is criticising Beatrice sharply, commenting only on her social, external persona. Shakespeare is asking us how important social personae are, and, again, pointing out that they are a part of who we really are.

There is a hint of enjoyment in, "And, truly, I'll devise some honest slanders to stain my cousin with" (3.1.84- 85): Hero perhaps finds something satisfying in criticising Beatrice. It is possible that Hero envies Beatrice's independence and resents the way in which she always has the limelight. There is also a hint of this in Act 3 Scene 4 when Hero is being dressed for her wedding. She is petulant, rejecting Margaret's suggestion that she wear another dress with, "My cousin's a fool, and thou art another. I'll wear none but this" (3.4.10-11). Hero is clearly nervous about her wedding; she says that her heart is "exceedingly heavy" (22-23), to which Margaret replies aptly, "Twill be heavier soon, by the weight of a man" (24-25). When Beatrice enters, however, the spotlight shifts onto her. She greets Hero in a melancholy voice; this is implied by Hero's response, "Why, how now? Do you speak in the sick tune?" (37). Beatrice claims to be "exceeding ill" (47), but the implication is that she is love-sick. Margaret teases Beatrice for the rest of the scene, and Hero is almost forgotten. The scene ends with Ursula returning to hurry the girls along, and we are reminded that this is Hero's day. The dynamic operating is one in which Hero defers to Beatrice, as she does throughout the entire play. Only when Hero is disgraced does she have the spotlight. The relationship between the cousins is therefore more complex than it might first appear; Shakespeare suggests that there is tension between them, but does not expand on the hints which he gives of it.

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