Social Illusions in Much Ado About Nothing
In Much Ado About Nothing, Shakespeare presents us with a romp through the realms of truth and illusion. The play is full of characters plotting and deceiving, for both noble and repugnant reasons. It is a study in the importance and necessity of illusion in our everyday lives, and shows how deeply ingrained deception is in our social behaviors.
Everybody is involved in some kind of illusion, from the masked celebration to the unveiling of Hero's "cousin." Two of the major conspiracies in the play are the Claudio/Hero plotline and the Benedick/Beatrice story. Both of these situations contrast the multiplicitous nature of illusion.
Claudio and Hero do not operate in the realm of illusion. Their intentions and emotions are easily visible, so much so that they come off as transparent. Their utter lack of ability to engage in social illusion makes them unbelievable: Claudio falls in love with Hero upon sight, but cannot create an illusion as simple as the portrayal of himself as a suitor. To the audience these two come off as fake, and this clues the viewer/reader in to the fact that the characters of Claudio and Hero are Shakespeare's illusion of true love. Shakespeare knew that love is not straightforward and that oftentimes love and honesty do not go hand in hand.
Benedick and Beatrice, however, are well-versed in the intricacies of illusion. They disguise their affection with verbal sparring, creating a fašade of animosity. They are successful only at fooling themselves, and it is this self-delusion that brings them into the realm of believability. By far, Benedick and Beatrice are more realistic than Claudio and Hero because they work, just as we all do, in the realm of illusion.
Two groups conspire against the pairs of lovers. In this, Shakespeare shows how common and group-oriented illusion is in society. Everybody from noblemen like Leonato and Don Pedro, to servants such as Ursula and Margaret, to scoundrels Don John and Borachio engage in deception. While involvement and motives vary drastically, we're all tangential to some form of illusion.
The deception woven by Leonato, Don Pedro, Claudio, Hero and Ursula to bring Benedick and Beatrice together is successful. Because they both buy into the ruse, the lovers finally come together to accept the "truth" of mutual affection. However, a more cynical view could argue that Benedick and Beatrice exchanged an illusion of animosity for an illusion of true love. Certainly the lovers' sheer sweetness at the end of the play is some sly nod on Shakespeare's part almost daring a viewer/reader to believe they've found love and happiness.
Don John, Borachio and the unwitting Margaret fool Claudio and Don Pedro into believing that Hero is not pure. Because Claudio is incapable of comprehending illusion, he is completely taken by what he thinks he sees. He handles the event poorly and it is only through the illusion instituted by Leonato and Friar Francis, to hide Hero and claim she's dead, that things are finally resolved.
By showing the deep tangles of illusion that exist in normal social relationships, Shakespeare reminds us of our dependence upon fabrication. He shows us that we both desire to be and have a deep need to deceive ourselves and others. It's why we watch plays and read literature. But Shakespeare also shows us the precarious balance of illusion in our lives and the ease with which we can lose our grip on reality and fiction.
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