Misguided Perception and Self-Righteous Judgment in Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing
Like so many of Shakespeare’s comedies, Much Ado About Nothing comes perilously close to becoming a tragedy before being rescued by the mitigating graces of providential serendipity and human forgiveness. A series of entirely preventable errors initially bring Much Ado to the brink of tragedy.
As we examine these errors, we can see two main factors contributing to this movement toward tragedy: misperception brought about by malevolent deception and destructive judgment brought about by self-righteous pride. As we consider the episodes connected to these factors, we may recognize that while in light of human imperfection, misperception and susceptibility to malevolent deception are at times unavoidable, even an erring individual can refrain from destructive judgment and thus avoid tragedy.
Much Ado’s main plot concerns the sincere but immature infatuation that the young Count Claudio has for Hero, the daughter of Padua’s governor Leonato, in whose spacious household the play takes place as Claudio and a number of his associates enjoy an extended stay as Leonato’s guests. In response to Claudio’s falling in love with Hero, Claudio’s friend and mentor, Don Pedro, the Prince of Aragon, proposes to woo Hero on Claudio’s behalf that evening at the masquerade ball and ask for her hand in marriage to Claudio. Don Pedro’s plan succeeds, but not before his malicious brother, Don John, deceives Claudio into believing that Don Pedro is really wooing Hero for himself, a lie that promptly elicits Claudio’s angry renunciation of Hero, whom he blames for destroying his friendship with Don Pedro, declaring that “beauty is a witch / Against whose charms faith melteth into blood” (2.1.188-89). Claudio’s impetuous words demonstrate not only how easily he is deceived by a malevolent agent, but also how hasty he is to blame female beauty for his perceived misfortunes. However, Claudio promptly forgets Don John’s machinations when Don Pedro happily informs him that Hero has agreed to be Claudio’s wife. But as we shall see, Claudio would have done well to remember Don John’s malicious deception and his own misguided response to Don John’s words.
Don John’s second attempt to thwart Claudio’s happiness occurs the day before Claudio’s wedding to Hero. Speaking to both Claudio and Don Pedro, Don John declares that Hero “is disloyal” (3.2.107) and prolifically so, calling her “every man’s Hero” (110). After Don John also states that he can show evidence of Hero’s unfaithfulness, Claudio angrily asserts, “If I see anything to-night why I should not marry her to-morrow, in the congregation, where I should wed, there will I shame her” (129-30). Don Pedro quickly joins him, saying, ‘And, as I wooed for thee to obtain her, I will join with thee to disgrace her’ (131-32).
Deceived by the machinations of Don John and his scheming friend Borachio, Claudio and Don Pedro do indeed join forces the next day at the wedding ceremony to “shame” and “disgrace” Hero. Don Pedro emphasizes that he, Claudio, and Don John, late the night before, did “see her” and “hear her” do the following:
Talk with a ruffian at her chamber-window;
Who hath indeed, most like a liberal villain,
Confess’d the vile encounters they have had
A thousand times in secret. (4.1.92-95)
In truth, however, what they saw was not Hero at all, but her gentlewoman Margaret, dressed as Hero, speaking with Borachio. Sadly, despite Hero’s vehement protestations of her innocence, Claudio and Don Pedro are unmoved, and even her father, Leonato, believes the false accusations against her. As readers of Much Ado surely remember, Hero and Claudio are reconciled largely through a combination of two factors. First, there is Friar Francis’s ingenious suggestion that Hero feign death in order to convict Claudio’s conscience (see 4.1.157-256), a “die to live” plot that works decidedly more effectively than the similar but much more risky strategy suggested by Friar Laurence to the titular lovers in Romeo and Juliet. Second, there is the providential arrest of Borachio when he boasts to Conrade of his deceptive exploit (see 3.3.152-90), an arrest that leads to his full confession, exposing his own and Don John’s treachery as well as Claudio’s misguided public accusations. Thankfully, Hero’s choice to forgive Claudio thwarts the bloodshed anticipated after Claudio and Don Pedro’s friend Benedick challenges Claudio to a duel, a challenge incited when Beatrice—Benedick’s beloved and Hero’s best friend—exhorts Benedick to “Kill Claudio” for publicly shaming Hero (4.1.288).
But Hero’s humiliation and the threat of deadly violence could have been prevented had Claudio and Don Pedro exercised appropriate wisdom and restraint even amid supposed evidence of Hero’s guilt. Several matters ought to be considered.
First, Claudio and Don Pedro should have weighed Don John’s duplicitous character over and against Hero’s heretofore unimpeachable character. Although the evidence that Don John presents to Claudio and Don Pedro seems convincing, both men’s experience with Don John’s malevolence should have made them suspicious of his case against Hero, especially in light of her strong denial of any charges of infidelity. Significantly, Leonato mentions that Don John has only lately been “reconciled” to Don Pedro (1.1.161), something that suggests that Don John has in the past wronged his brother in ways that caused distrust in their relationship. Moreover, as we discussed above, Claudio has been very recently deceived by Don John’s false statement regarding Don Pedro’s wooing Hero for himself. Why are Claudio and Don Pedro not more suspicious that Don John has acted to deceive them, especially with another suggestion of Hero’s wandering affections? Certainly Don John is playing on his brother’s and especially Claudio’s masculine pride and their misogynistic suspicions of female infidelity, a theme Shakespeare also explores in Othello and The Winter’s Tale. But the discrepancy between Don John’s and Hero’s respective moral characters should have been obvious, and it is a pity that Claudio and Don Pedro could not have read The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, for they would have benefitted from Professor Kirke’s wisdom when he tells Peter and Susan that they should exercise “logic” and believe Lucy’s word over Edmund’s regarding whether or not Narnia really exists, for they know that she is always “the more truthful” of the two.
Second, although Claudio and Don Pedro claim to have seen with their own eyes and heard with their own ears Hero talking with her paramour, the evidence that she ever had such a conversation is actually quite sketchy. When Borachio boasts to Conrade about deceiving Claudio and Don Pedro, he lists a number of factors that contribute to his successful ruse. He notes that the pair never had a clear view of his ribald conversation with Margaret. Rather, Claudio and Don Pedro “saw afar off in the orchard” Borachio’s seeming “amiable encounter” with Hero and that “the dark night” served to “deceive them.” If Claudio and Don Pedro had contemplated their own impaired perception instead of pridefully and angrily assuming her wrongdoing, they might have refrained from disgracing Hero.
A final matter to consider is that, even if Claudio was completely convinced of Hero’s unfaithfulness, he still could have decided against publicly shaming her. Indeed, given the play’s Christian milieu, Claudio would have been aware of the alternative approach exemplified by Saint Joseph in Matthew’s gospel. While Claudio was presented with dubious evidence regarding his beloved’s unchastity, Joseph was faced with the reality that his betrothed wife, Mary, was pregnant. Remarkably, even though Mosaic law commanded stoning for adulterers (Leviticus 20:10 and Deuteronomy 22:22), Joseph, described as “a just man” who was “not willing to make her a public example” had resolved to divorce Mary “privily [quietly]” (Matthew 1:18). Only after Joseph virtuously decides to forgo public vengeance does the angel tell him that the child “which is conceived in [Mary] is of the Holy Ghost” (1:18). Joseph’s choice to exercise restraint amid his own seeming humiliation reminds us that nothing beyond Claudio’s own pride necessitates his public disgracing of Hero.
More than a century after Shakespeare penned Much Ado, Alexander Pope wrote, “To err is human, to forgive divine.” In Shakespeare’s play, Claudio’s failure to either recognize his own susceptibility to error or to forgive another’s presumed faults pushes Much Ado to the brink of tragedy. Indeed, the tirades of Sophocles’ Oedipus remind us that self-righteous accusation founded on erroneous perception is the very essence of tragedy. As noted earlier, the damage of Claudio’s misguided accusations is ultimately undone by Friar Francis’s benevolent machinations, Borachio’s providential arrest, and the forgiveness of Hero herself. But the preventability of Claudio’s near-tragic actions remind us of the quiet heroism of humility and self-control.