Dis/order in ‘Much Ado About Nothing’

Explore the relationship between order and disorder in Much Ado About Nothing

Chaos is at the heart of comedy, in fact it is at the heart of us. It is not only in dramatic comedy, but in life itself that the relentless battle between order and chaos is fought. We talk of using our ‘heads’ or our ‘hearts’, of speaking of ‘facts’ as opposed to feelings. There is a dichotomy in our language that separates the logical from the rational, the chaos of emotion from the clarity of stone-cold reason. We find ourselves in situations which give rise to either one or the other. The surgeon operating on a patient’s heart valve is not concerned with his or her feelings towards the patient, but focused only on the facts about that patient during the operation: his or her blood pressure, heart rate and so on. Feelings and emotions have little or no place in these situations.

Conversely, the opposite is also true. There are situations in which feelings and emotions are the order of the day. We might find it rather odd, for example, if a mother / father felt nothing upon holding their newborn baby for the first time, or if a friend could watch the plight of those living in extreme poverty without feeling some compassion. Standing on the top of a mountain, listening to a favourite piece of music, falling in love. (Hopefully not all at the same time.) Facts, order, logic, reason: they may well struggle to make themselves heard above the chaos of our emotions.

Much Ado About Nothing is a play about falling in love. It is a rom-com. Thus if we were forced to place it in one of the above categories, we would be right in placing it in the latter. Much of it is about emotions. It is an appeal to our own emotions. Perhaps it is, in some way, about Shakespeare’s own emotions (although let’s not worry too much about him). The characters experience extreme and heartfelt emotions. Often, chaos ensues.

And yet it would be reductive to suggest that this is all there is to it. Indeed, if it were all chaos, the play would be very difficult – impossible, perhaps – to watch. Comedy is not about the absolute absence of order – it is far more subtle than that. Order and structure are essential to its success. To understand the relationship between order and disorder is, therefore, essential to an understanding of comedy.

One of the ways in which we can observe this relationship between order and disorder is by exploring the play’s setting. In Messina, Shakespeare opts for a civilised yet rural society that has all the custom and manners of the courtly world whilst being free from its formality. In this sense, it is something of a blend between order and chaos. (Kenneth Branagh captures this so well in his film version of the play, when the sudden ceremony of Don Pedro’s arrival at I.i.20-25 seems almost farcical after antics that precede it.) Leonato’s house is one that respects the rules of the court whilst holding them rather loosely. There is some order. There is some disorder. There is both.

Furthermore, the timing of Don Pedro’s arrival is significant. These are men on their way home from battle. The serious stuff is done. It’s been intense, but it’s finished now. What’s more, they’ve been victorious. They have a reason to celebrate. Much Ado is an ‘after-party’ in a stately home: the perfect blend of formality and informality, of order and chaos.

It is no surprise, then, that one of the play’s earliest scenes is a party. In Act 1 scene i, Don Pedro sets the scene: “I know we shall have some revelling tonight” (I.i.300 – my emphasis). A revel – in this case, a masked dance – was a common form of entertainment for the Elizabethans. We see it in Romeo and Juliet, when Capulet holds a masked ball. It is no coincidence that this is the setting for the first meeting of the ‘star-cross’d lovers’, and where they fall in love. At a masked ball one is allowed a greater freedom than is usual. Juliet is free from her duty to Paris and her father; Romeo is free from his status as a Montague. Wearing masks, they are free to be whoever they want to be. Rules of everyday life are suspended; the natural order of things is put on hold for the time being; inhibitions are less acutely felt. We see this in the free and easy banter that rolls through Act II scene i, in the rapid succession of conversations, the mistaken identities and the chaos that ensues. We see the freedom in Beatrice’s uncommon views on marriage, the liberty in Benedick’s venting against Beatrice. Emotions are heightened, opinions extreme, the language itself pours forth in a torrent of energetic prose. (Shakespeare usually wrote in the more structured form of iambic pentameter, but the majority of Much Ado is written in prose.) There are moments when order makes a fleeting return – the formal and legally-binding marriage ‘pre-contract’ between Claudio and Hero, for example, or Claudio’s wilful attempt to reason with himself in lines 160-70 (one of the few speeches in iambic pentameter) but these only serve to heighten the chaos that surrounds, and the scene ends by looking forward to the chaos that is yet to ensue: Don Pedro’s plan to trick Beatrice and Benedick into believing themselves the object of the other’s affections. It is this initial revel that both establishes the disorder of Messina and sets into motion the greater disorder that is to follow.

Whilst on the subject of form, it is interesting to compare Claudio’s heartfelt complaint with Benedick’s accusations against Beatrice. Claudio’s soliloquy is leant a certain heaviness:

‘Tis certain so; the Prince woos for himself. (II.i.162)

The iambic pentameter is steady; the caesura lends the line a ponderous, reflective quality; the line is end-stopped: it feels weighty. This all serves to confirm Claudio’s certainty and enhance his sense of dejection, so that when he declares ‘Farewell, therefore, Hero!’ we feel that his sentiments are genuine. In contrast, Benedick’s denunciation of Beatrice sounds like the ravings of a fool:

She told me, not thinking I had been myself, that I was the Prince’s jester, that I was duller than a great thaw, huddling jest upon jest with such impossible conveyance upon me that I stood like a man at a mark, with a whole army shooting at me. (II.i.226-231)

The parenthetical clause (in italics) fragments the sentence and creates a stilted effect; the repetition of ‘that I was’ (in bold) adds a rambling tone to the words which is only increased further by the onomatopoeic quality of the verb ‘huddling’ and the alliteration in ‘jest upon jest’ and ‘man at a mark’. They are wonderful lines to perform, precisely because such qualities lend them a palpable energy, a sense of escalating chaos. The final simile of Benedick’s being shot at by an ‘army’ of archers confirms his lack of control, and the effect is far from serious. In fact, it is impossible to take our hero seriously despite his own doing so with such apparent zeal and fervour, and it is, ironically, these very qualities which serve only to make him seem all the more foolish, and the scene all the more comical.

Much of the chaos that follows from the masked ball is the result of practical jokes played upon unsuspecting characters. These are formed around two narrative threads: that of Don John’s deceiving Claudio and Don Pedro into believing Hero to be unfaithful, and that of the aforementioned trick played upon Beatrice and Benedick. The parallels are obvious: in both cases a collective of individuals conspire to make reality appear other than that which it really is. Both appeal to the senses (be they vision or hearing) of their unsuspecting victims, rather like Iago in Othello, or Sir Toby and Maria in Twelfth Night. And, as these two examples may well suggest, there is the potential for this deceit to end in both comedy and tragedy. If, for example, Friar Francis’ plan to save Hero (yet again by deceit) had been unsuccessful, (rather like that of Friar Lawrence’s plan in Romeo and Juliet), then she may well have died from a broken heart. Claudio, upon finding out the truth, would most likely have murdered Don John (and Borachio, perhaps) in revenge, before turning the dagger upon himself. Witnessing such events would have resulted in Leonato’s dying of a broken heart (either literally or metaphorically) and the play would have ended a tragedy. Chaos would have had to result in death for order to be established.

We are spared the grief of a tragic ending. Both threads of the narrative end happily in the double wedding of Beatrice/Benedick and Hero/Claudio; the chaos does not result in death, but in life: ‘The world must be peopled!’ and order is restored through the institution of marriage. Yet it is difficult to forget entirely how easily events could have ended in a far sorrier state.

Perhaps the point, then, is that the dichotomy of order and chaos about which we were so confident at the start, is less distinct than we might have imagined. Life and death, comedy and tragedy, order and disorder – there is a finer line between these concepts than we like to think. Much Ado About Nothing presents us with a world that is both ordered and disordered, structured and chaotic, comic and tragic. In its setting, structure, form and in its very plot, it offers us this alarming truth: order and chaos are never that far away from each other. The dramatic masks of comedy and tragedy are interlinked and interchangeable: we may be wearing one for the time being, but it will not be long before we are forced to exchange it for its counterpart.

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2 thoughts on “Dis/order in ‘Much Ado About Nothing’

  1. I have exactly the same question and I liked this essay so much I will have to work hard to get it out of my mind when I am writing (I might take up the prose/verse idea though and interpet it a bit differently). Enjoyable read : )

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