All Shakespeare's comedies have dark and problematic sides. Much Ado About Nothing, however, differs from A Midsummer Night's Dream, Twelfth Night and As You Like It in that it is not a carnival or festive comedy. In festive comedy the setting is either a festival or magic space where the usual social rules do not apply. Women may dress as men and servants may assume power (as in The Comedy of Errors) until the conventional hierarchy is restored in the closing scene. Much Ado About Nothing is set in a real social world whose rules are not subverted. This makes us aware of their frightening power. Don Pedro's attempt to shift the play into a festive comedy by introducing an element of disguise (he wears a mask while proposing to Hero on Claudio's behalf) fails: Claudio thinks he has been betrayed. The cruelty of Don Pedro, Claudio and Leonato and their gullibility is far more serious than the villany of Don John or the mischief-making of Borachio. Don John holds a grudge against his legitimate brother Don Pedro; there is a similar relationship in King Lear between Edgar and Edmund. Don John has been defeated in the war, but has been "reconciled" with Don Pedro and so has to spend time with the winning side at Leonato's house. This is obviously an awkward situation for him; he is the black sheep who cannot really fit in. This is conveyed by Leonato's greeting:
"Let me bid you welcome, my lord, being reconciled to the Prince your brother. I owe you all duty."
This could be spoken warmly, as if Leonato genuinely welcomes Don John to his house, or more coolly, as if he is performing an obligation in having him as his guest. Don John's reply is similarly ambiguous:
"I thank you. I am not of many words, but I thank you." (1.1.145-149)
In Act 1 Scene 3 Don John shows honesty unmatched by anyone else in the play:
"I cannot hide what I am. I must be sad when I have cause, and smile at no man's jests; eat when I have stomach, and wait for no man's leisure; sleep when I am drowsy, and tend on no man's business; laugh when I am merry and claw no man in his humour." (1.3.12-17)
He refuses to obey what he sees as pointless social rules; the "good" characters rely heavily on these rules and are helpless when they seem to have disintegrated. Don John's plot is evil, but not unfoundedly so. His villainy has its roots in his anger at being excluded from society on the grounds of his illegitimacy and at seeing others rise in the social hierarchy, as Claudio has just done:
"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 am trusted with a muzzle and enfranchised with a clog; therefore I have decreed not to sing in my cage. If I had my mouth, I would bite; if I had my liberty, I would do my liking. In the meantime, let me be that I am, and seek not to alter me." (1.3.30-35)
Don John feels that he has suffered at the hands of the conventional social hierarchy, and he takes revenge by overthrowing it. The accusation of Hero's infidelity shakes everything that the social world of the play stands for. The real casualty of this, however, is Margaret. She is seduced by Borachio and will not be able to regain her reputation. Leonato says in 5.1.317-18, "We'll talk with Margaret, how her acquaintance grew with this lewd fellow" and in 5.4.4-6 that "Margaret was in some fault for this, / Although against her will, as it appears / In the true course of all the question". Benedick banters with her in Act 5 Scene 2, but otherwise her role in the affair is sidelined. In the general relief that Hero is still chaste, the fact that Margaret no longer is is lost. Put baldly, in the world of Much Ado About Nothing, a noble girl's reputation is more important than a servant girl's. The instability of the social code in Much Ado About Nothing links it with the problem plays Measure for Measure, All's Well that Ends Well and Troilus and Cressida in which Shakespeare challenges social rules and ethics with a dark ferocity. Much Ado About Nothing is also part of a group containing Othello, King Lear and The Winter's Tale. All four plays, each from a different phase of Shakespeare's career, deal with male irrationality or jealousy and its destructiveness. It is also significant that the names Lear, Leontes and Leonato have the same linguistic root in the Latin word for lion, 'leo'. Much Ado About Nothing has strong elements of humour, lightness, pathos and romanticism, but it also has a darkness that puts it on a level with the tragedies, the problem plays and the late plays.
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