A somewhat topsy-turvy presentation is evident throughout this play: Dogberry and the Watch are very much the “third string” to this play’s bow, and yet have captured the greatest place in public imagination. Likewise, on the romantic front, we may say that it is the second-bow players who have the next most prominent place in people’s minds; for even though the play is essentially about the love affair between Claudio and Hero (the first string to the bow), many play-goers come away with a clearer memory of, and greater empathy for, Benedick and Beatrice.
Firstly, we should note the high ideals of marriage maintained throughout the play. John Peck and Martin Coyle (“How to study a Shakespeare play”, Macmillan, 1985) state: “Marriage is the institution which reconciles the demands of society and the nature of individuals….The good characters are thus brought into a circle of happiness”. It is certainly true that there is no romantic scene in the play that fails to point to marriage as the natural outcome of any love affair. Attitudes in society have changed from the end of the sixteenth century to the present day. A play or film today which introduces the theme of romance, will also point forward to the inevitability of sex – and usually go there too, ensuring that the film censors get some work to do and restrict the film from viewing by younger cinema-goers. It is not surprising that at the end of the sixteenth century the consummation of the marriage is only lightly referred to (just once in Much Ado About Nothing, when Don Pedro promises to remain until the consummation of the marriage before returning to Aragon), whilst the marriage itself, and all its religious and social rites, is seen as the exciting climax to the love affair. In short, Peck and Coyle’s point is well made, although changing attitudes in society may have reduced the impact of the marital references on contemporary audiences.
That marriage is taken very seriously indeed is also shown by the changing attitudes of family members once betrothal has taken place. Just seconds after Don Pedro has informed Claudio that the lady Hero is successfully wooed, and that the consent for marriage has been given by her father, we find Claudio addressing Beatrice as “cousin”. They are not cousins at all, but she is Hero’s cousin – the very act of being betrothed has instantly forged close family bonds not only between the couple, but also between their respective extended families. The same thing is found later in the scene when Don Pedro asks Claudio when the wedding will take place. He answers “Tomorrow, my lord. Time goes on crutches till love have all his rites” – a touching allusion to the way time passes so slowly when the excited groom is longing to meet his bride in the wedding ceremony. However, he is over-eager, and Hero’s father, Leonato, answers “Not till Monday, my dear son”. He is slowing the process a little, but also greets Claudio as a family member in the use of the word “son”.
Malcolm Evans (“Alternative Shakespeares” ed. Drakakis, Routledge, 1985) states that in this play and in all the Comedies marriage is “the moment of social renewal which is accompanied by the dance as a symbol of cosmic harmony”. It does indeed seem that the “happy ending” so necessary to a Comedy can be more easily achieved with the addition of marriage. As a consequence of this high ideal, the serious nature of marriage is perhaps also reflected in the shame and potential punishment related to infidelity, even before the marriage has taken place. Hero was not unfaithful of course, but the play revolves around the mistaken belief (engineered by the bastard Don John) that she has been seeing another man. The shame of this supposed sin is made clear when Hero faints at the suggestion, and the onlookers believe she has dropped down dead. No-one seems to think this inappropriate either. In fact, even her own father gazing at her apparently lifeless body says that death...
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