Tragic heroes have death to purify them. Death sets all to rights. Comedies have no such recourse: whatever transgressions have upset the social balance must be restored to rights by a wedding, a trope of the comic genre. But some comedies delve into waters too murky to fix with marriage alone. While no one can speak to authorial intent, it’s tempting to imagine Shakespeare’s interweaving of the two narratives into Much Ado About Nothing as an exploration of such murky waters, deliberately contrasting two different philosophies of love. In our sympathies, the text critiques one and exalts the other. One constellation of characters represents a Medieval template of chivalric love, wherein men of solid virtue (galvanized by war and homosocial bonds) woo women of blemishless honor—women who deign to step down from their pedestals only in acceptance of a decorous marriage proposal. Reputation weighs more, in this lofty love-trope, than human trust and respect. Don Pedro, Claudio, and Hero are of this category, and they are doomed to failure within the worldview of the play. In fact, their decisions go so terribly awry that a simple marriage isn’t enough to redeem them. A tragic death is necessary. Hero doesn’t really die, but her faked death, like the real death in a tragedy, restores the play’s moral equilibrium, and with it the play makes its main point: that the false ideal of courtly love should—indeed must—“die” to give room to more human-scale notions of sympathy, parity, and understanding in conjugal relationships.
To help us to this valuable lesson, we get the play’s other love prototype, Benedick and Beatrice. These lovers woo on equal footing to one another, and are well-matched in intelligence, agency, individuation, and humor. They are people, not abstractions. Their relationship is based not on any template of love, but on the true meeting of minds. The audience relishes their courtship, and the stilted relationship between Claudio and Hero becomes a low-fidelity shadow in comparison, moving to the back of the viewer’s mind. It is almost as if Beatrice and Benedick have been imported into Much Ado from a different play. To sweep out the cobwebs, perhaps?—to shine light into the dark corners of convention? They do to the language of the play what they do to its ethos—queer the pitch; lend their all-too-human wit and vitality to the tired rhetoric of courtship; fuel the drama with their inexhaustible, bawdy joy—and they do it with such panache that they are, for many viewers, the only memorable part of the play. See how, when Benedick is in the room, the language of the others changes. In Act I, when Claudio and Don Pedro speak, they follow the script of chivalric codes: Claudio asks of Hero, “Can the world buy such a jewel?” To which Benedick quips, “Yea, and a case to put it in” (I.i.175-6). Don Pedro attests to her “worthiness” as well, in a lordly dialect that matches Claudio’s (I.i.220). But within a few pages Benedick has them all talking with low-brow humor of sexual appetites, women’s infidelity, brothels and “horn-mad” husbands, making the mannered jargon of the previous pages feel stilted and out-of-date (I.i.250-60): he cannot help but replace ideals with life, real life, and this makes the audience his ally. This happens virtually any time Benedick is in the scene, and when he isn’t, the characters fall joylessly to their practiced scripts. Likewise, Beatrice runs circles around her dullard cousin with her wit until she fluffs Hero up into the same kind of boisterousness that keeps her real and lovable—and too large and human to fit into the two-dimensional “virginal maiden” schema.
It is unsurprising that masks and masquerades thread through this play, for the conflict between role-playing and authenticity lies at the crux of the drama. The scales fall from the eyes of our beloved hero and heroine when they trade in their sharp tongues—tongues that have insulated them from vulnerability—for self-knowledge and the authentic love of and for one another. For the characters still beholden to the Platonic shadows of the Romance genre, the transformation comes at a greater cost. The audience watches in horror as Claudio publicly shames Hero. We don’t cringe because he is wrong (though he is—on virtually every level), but because, the play suggests, this outcome is the inevitable result of holding a lover to unrealistic standards. The chivalric code forces us to be perfect, and to expect perfection from our potential spouse. That, Shakespeare suggests, isn’t tenable. We fall hard when we have that far to fall. Claudio becomes nearly irredeemable at his public humiliation of Hero, but Hero, for agreeing to play the part of the slandered maiden, is culpable as well. After all, if you play in a world where masks are more important than reality, a seeming betrayal, hid by the “sign and semblance of… honor” (IV.i.41) makes you as guilty as a real one: the seeming is everything. So she must be punished (it’s rather a shame that Claudio isn’t punished more, for his cruelty to a grieving father if not his unnecessary cruelty to a lover). She, like the de casibus hero (Hero?), must die. But her death is a kind of purgation, releasing the play from the stranglehold of the past, allowing her and her lover to be “re-born” into the more winsome world of Beatrice and Benedick.
Shakespeare, William. Much Ado About Nothing. Signet Classics, 1998.