Setting in Shakespeare’s ‘Much Ado About Nothing’

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SETTING IN SHAKESPEARE’S ‘MUCH ADO ABOUT NOTHING’

Shakespeare’s “Much Ado About Nothing” unravels the powerful pressure that society places upon an individual, because at the heart of this play is the society of Messina which powerfully influences the characters and the way they live their lives. The Messinian society of the 16th Century is in stark contrast to our own busy and hyped society of today where words are quickly losing their importance and prominence, as other forms of communication are taking over. Shakespeare structures this play around the code of conduct that governs Messinian society and forces its citizens to judge each other on appearance rather than on any sort of truth. This play, structured as it is around the complexity and conventions of Messinian society, uses these confines to skilfully unravel a story of tragedy and comedy whilst exposing the diversity of the human mind. Shakespeare composes this text using a variety of language structures to create different atmospheres and dimensions between the characters who, interestingly, still appeal to a 21st century audience. The most important character in “Much Ado About Nothing” is Messina itself, because it is the structure of Messinian society that has shaped the characters into the people they are. In Messina, characters find it easier to believe in words ‘about’ people than in people themselves, which is a solid foundation for the many deceptions and lies that are prevalent amongst the characters. Initially we see Messina in many ways attractive because it is presented to us in the opening scenes as busy, lively, witty, teasing, socially animated and entertaining. But it is not until we scratch under the surface of its superficial appearance that we realise it is also brittle and fragile, exposed to treacherous misrepresentations and too much at the mercy of slander, malice and abuse. Messina is a deeply convention bound society which pivots around honour, trust and social rank. To save ourselves and the play from the emptiness of gossip, which is so intertwined in this play, we need to understand the conventions of the code of honour which govern the society of Messina if we are to fully understand the reasons for Beatrice and Benedick and Hero and Claudio’s thoughts, behaviour and actions. We must enter their world of conventions, traditions and social pressures which are a part of courtly life in Messina, based as it is upon appearances and representations, because it is these pressures which cause the majority of the problems that these characters must confront. It is precisely because of the importance placed upon appearances and status that this society is teetering on the edge of social corruption. Its unrealistic expectations, namely that males belong to a male code of honour and females are spotless virgins until their wedding day, together with the crushing of individuality and freedom, has given birth to an inordinate amount of eavesdropping and instant gossip and it is these inaccuracies which sow the seeds that drive the storylines forward. Shakespeare gives us two sets of protagonists, the convention bound Claudio and Hero, idealists who represent Messinian values, and then contrasts them with Beatrice and Benedick, ‘realists’, who dare to reject the values of the society they live in. It is one of the play’s ironies that it is the play’s ‘realists’ who will not take appearances at face value but seek to get behind them and get to know each other based on their true worth and not their social status and reputation. In stark contrast to the society seen in Messina, society in the 21st century is different, lacking as it does the lively, witty, teasing and socially animated aspects captured in the opening scenes of “Much Ado About Nothing”. Today this vibrancy has been replaced by monotony and the constant drone of everyday routine as people go about their lives separate from one another, involved only in matters that will benefit...
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