Much Ado About Nothing

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Themes and Colors
Love and Masquerade Theme Icon
Courtship, Wit, and Warfare Theme Icon
Language, Perception and Reality Theme Icon
Marriage, Shame and Freedom Theme Icon
LitCharts assigns a color and icon to each theme in Much Ado About Nothing, which you can use to track the themes throughout the work.
Language, Perception and Reality Theme Icon

Much Ado About Nothing dwells on the way that language and communication affect our perception of reality. It is important to remember nothing (besides marriage) actually happens in the play—there are no fights, deaths, thefts, journeys, trials, illnesses, sexual encounters, losses or gains of wealth, or anything else material. All that changes is the perception that these things have happened, or that they will happen: that Hero is no longer a virgin, or that she has died, or that Claudio and Benedick will fight.

Tricks of language alone repeatedly change the entire situation of the play. Overheard conversations cause Benedick and Beatrice to fall in love, and the sonnets they have written one another stop them from separating once the prank behind their romance has been revealed. The idea that we live in a world of language and appearances, beyond which we cannot see, is common throughout Shakespeare. The famous quote that “All the world’s a stage,” is another example.

By the end, the false language in Much Ado About Nothing has almost overwhelmed the reality. Characters have fallen into the roles given to them in the lies told about them: Benedick and Beatrice have become lovers, and Hero is treated like a whore by her own father. Ironically, the only character with the knowledge to replace this false language with the truth is the completely inarticulate Dogberry.

Language, Perception and Reality ThemeTracker

The ThemeTracker below shows where, and to what degree, the theme of Language, Perception and Reality appears in each scene of Much Ado About Nothing. Click or tap on any chapter to read its Summary & Analysis.
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Language, Perception and Reality Quotes in Much Ado About Nothing

Below you will find the important quotes in Much Ado About Nothing related to the theme of Language, Perception and Reality.
Act 1, Scene 3 Quotes

“I cannot be said to be a flattering honest man, it must not be denied but I am a plain-dealing villain.”

Related Characters: Don John (speaker)
Page Number: 1.3.28-30
Explanation and Analysis:

This scene begins, like many Shakespearean scenes, with one character asking another why he is so sad. Conrade asks Don John why he is so melancholy, to which Don John first responds with the astrological response that he is born under Saturn and cannot hide what he really is, and then with this quote.

In the quote, Don John states his belief that he cannot hide, much less change, his true interior, and that he is a villain. The quote turns out to be true, as Don John goes on to act villainously for no good reason through the rest of the play. 

Don John would rather be himself and be hated than act falsely and pretend to be happy or kind. Thus he deems himself a "plain-dealing villain" in great contrast to the whimsical, love-struck characters who are constantly pretending and playing tricks. Soon after this proclamation Don John learns about his brother Don Pedro's plan with Claudio to woo Hero in disguise; Don John immediately decides to attempt to mess up his brother's plan and prevent the courtship of Hero. He does this not out of desire to court Hero himself. Instead, he just wants to make everyone else as unhappy as he is.

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Act 2, Scene 1 Quotes

“Friendship is constant in all other things
Save in the office and affairs of love:
therefore all hearts in love use their own tongues;
Let every eye negotiate for itself
And trust no agent; for beauty is a witch
Against whose charms faith melteth into blood.”

Related Characters: Claudio (speaker), Don Pedro
Related Symbols: Eyes
Page Number: 2.1.143-178
Explanation and Analysis:

Don John and Borachio have just tricked Claudio into thinking that Don Pedro is in love with Hero and is wooing her for himself. After telling their lie, Borachio and Don John leave Claudio alone on stage; it is then that he offers his response to the false news in the form of a soliloquy.

Claudio says that friendship is constant and can be trusted in all areas except love and courtship. He concludes then that "all hearts in love use their own tongues," meaning he should speak for himself and not send a disguised surrogate to woo for him. He also says "let every eye negotiate for itself / And trust no agent." According to Claudio, love enters through the eyes, which in this play symbolize the senses in general. Thus a lover must trust only his own senses, and never the information and help of others. This notion is slightly ironic, since Claudio comes to this conclusion based on information he got from others who happened to be lying.

Also note how Claudio speaks about beauty as a "witch." There is an implication again that while Claudio loves Hero he is deeply afraid of being in love, and more specifically of being "tricked" into love by feminine beauty.  

“Silence is the perfectest herald of joy: I were but little happy, if I could say how much.”

Related Characters: Claudio (speaker)
Page Number: 2.1.300-301
Explanation and Analysis:

Convinced by Don John that Don Pedro loves Hero, Claudio appears sad and upset. Don Pedro questions him, but ultimately reveals that the marriage between Claudio and Hero has been arranged and approved. At this point Claudio's hesitations about Don Pedro seem to vanish, but he is speechless. Beatrice even needs to say, "Speak, count, ’tis your cue," a joke that Claudio has missed his cue (which of course would be doubly funny in a performance of the play, as the audience would be reminded of that fact that it is watching a play).

Claudio responds to Beatrice that "Silence is the perfectest herald of joy." Claudio is saying here that true happiness is unexplainable. Note Shakespeare's use of the superlative on perfect, a word which seems to in itself to already connote the superlative. "Perfectest" is excessive, beyond what is just perfect.

Act 2, Scene 3 Quotes

“Note this before my notes; There’s not a note of mine that’s worth the noting.”

Related Characters: Balthazar (speaker)
Related Symbols: Nothing
Page Number: 2.3.56-57
Explanation and Analysis:

Don Pedro, Leonato, Claudio, and Balthazar have entered, causing Benedick (who was soliloquizing about marriage moments earlier) to hide behind some trees. The group notices him hiding, but they pretend not to.

Don Pedro asks Balthazar to play music, and he agrees, but not before punning on nothing, noting, and musical notes. This pun recurs throughout the play and even in its title: chaos is caused because characters keep noting (noticing) nothings (lies and tricks). Balthazar says, essentially, notice this before my musical notes, there's not (another note pun) a musical note of mine that's worth listening to (noting) / worth anything (nothing).

Act 3, Scene 1 Quotes

“…of this matter
Is little Cupid’s crafty arrow made,
That only wounds by hearsay.”

Related Characters: Hero (speaker)
Page Number: 3.1.23-24
Explanation and Analysis:

Most of the characters are now conspiring to get Beatrice and Benedick to fall in love. Here, Hero sends Margaret to get Beatrice and to say that she has overheard Hero and Ursula gossiping. Hero then tells Ursula that they must get Beatrice to overhear them talking about how Benedick "is suck in love with Beatrice." By overhearing this, they hope, Beatrice will then fall in love with Benedick. Hero claims that it is moments of gossip like this one that comprise Cupid's arrows, which "only [wound] by hearsay."

Hero's theory of how love works seems to be generally upheld by the events of the play, as Benedick and Beatrice do end up falling in love, but the theory also applies more generally to information and the way that characters view the world, in this play and in most Shakespearean comedies. Errors, misunderstandings, mistaken identities, gossip, and lies become the substance of reality for comedic characters; confusion abounds until the play concludes and the thick layers of mistakes and untruths are unwoven.

Act 3, Scene 2 Quotes

“Well, every one can master a grief but he that has it.”

Related Characters: Benedick (speaker)
Related Symbols: Beards
Page Number: 3.2.27-28
Explanation and Analysis:

This scene begins with the discussion of Claudio's upcoming marriage, and with Don Pedro saying that after the wedding he will spend time with Benedick, who is always merry and impervious to cupid's arrows. To this assertion, Benedick says "I am not as I have been," indicating he has changed and fallen in love. Leonato and Don Pedro think that Benedick is sad or just needs money, but Claudio correctly asserts that he is in love. Benedick says that he has a toothache, and when the other men suggest that his sadness seems inappropriate for only a toothache, Benedick delivers the quoted line. 

He essentially says that it is easy to give suggestions on how to get over sadness, but difficult to get over it yourself. This line also speaks to the way that romance and emotions are crossed between characters. Don Pedro courts Hero for Claudio, and a whole group is conspiring to make Beatrice and Benedick fall in love. It is easy for them all to intervene in each other's love lives, but many of the characters face difficulties when dealing with their own situations.

Note also that Benedick's appearance and reality are changed at once. He is not as he has been, emotionally, but he has also shaved his beard, changed his attire, and put on perfume. His appearance as a man changes with his inner shift towards love.

Act 3, Scene 3 Quotes

“Seest thou not, I say, what a deformed thief this fashion is? how giddily he turns about all the hot bloods between fourteen and five-and-thirty?”

Related Characters: Borachio (speaker), Conrade
Page Number: 3.3.130-132
Explanation and Analysis:

Conrade and Borachio (two henchman of Don John) are talking about Don John's plan, all the while being overheard by the watchmen. After saying that he received money from Don John for his part in the plan, Borachio begins talking about fashion. In the quote, he describes fashion as a "deformed thief," commenting on how true identities and forms are obscured by the fickle, changing appearances of fashion.

This line of thinking relates to the themes of perception, masquerade, and disguise, which are all explored in the play, but here it functions primarily as a source of comedy. Humorously, a night watchman misunderstands Borachio and believes he is talking about a person, a third thief named Deformed. Because of this misunderstanding, the watchmen arrest Borachio and Conrade who are actually guilty of framing Hero.

Act 4, Scene 1 Quotes

“Oh what men dare do! what men may do! what men daily do, not knowing what they do!”

Related Characters: Claudio (speaker)
Page Number: 4.1.19-20
Explanation and Analysis:

Hero and Claudio are about to be married, but Claudio has been tricked by Don John into thinking that Hero has been unfaithful, and he plans to break off the wedding. It is with this line that he first indicates to the Friar, Leonato, and Hero, as well as all in attendance at the wedding, that something is not right. When the Friar asks Claudio if he knows any reasons the pair should not marry, Leonato says "I dare make his answer, none." To this line Claudio responds with dramatic flair: "Oh what men dare do!" and so on. His over the top exclamation points to his own doubt and confusion, and to the confusion that accompanies disguise, trickery, and altered perception: no one knows what they are doing. The quote is also an outburst against the men he believes have slept with Hero.

“There is not chastity enough in language
Without offence to utter them.”

Related Characters: Don John (speaker)
Page Number: 4.1.102-103
Explanation and Analysis:

Don John and Don Pedro are supporting Claudio's claims, since they all witnessed the evidence of Hero's infidelity together (though of course this was by Don John's design). When Don Pedro begins recounting what they saw and heard, Don John interrupts and tells him not to speak of it, since there "is not chastity enough in language" to say out loud what he knows.

By saying this, Don John at once suggests that Hero's crimes are too horrible to be uttered, and prevents Don Pedro from revealing the fabricated details which might be easily shot down by Hero or her family. As we know, Don John's tactics are more rooted in theatricality, performance, and sight than in language. Part of his act is what he doesn't say, and what he prevents others from saying. We also know from watching (or reading) the play that language is not chaste, since it is constantly being used for puns, innuendos, and misdirection, even in the play's title.

Act 4, Scene 2 Quotes

“O that he were here to write me down an ass! but, masters, remember that I am an ass; though it be not written down, yet forget not that I am an ass.”

Related Characters: Dogberry (speaker)
Page Number: 4.2.77-80
Explanation and Analysis:

This scene is comic relief from the intense emotions around the false accusal and shaming of Hero.

Dogberry and his men are failing miserably at interrogating Borachio and Conrade, with Dogberry himself constantly misusing words, confusing things, and focusing on minor details. After Don John's plot to fake Hero's infidelity has been revealed, Conrade calls Dogberry an ass. At this insult Dogberry launches into a tirade, from which the quote is excerpted. Here he obsesses over the idea of one of his men writing down that he is an ass. He repeats the line over and over again, constantly reminding his men not to write it down, but all the while making himself seem more and more like an ass with his continual denials and repetitions.

There is an echo in Dogberry's concern about his reputation of Claudio and even Leonato's concern about their reputations after they have come (with little evidence) to believe that Hero was unfaithful. And once again, Dogberry's ridiculousness implies that these men, so concerned with their own reputations above all, are ridiculous too.

Act 5, Scene 1 Quotes

“Charm ache with air and agony with words.”

Related Characters: Leonato (speaker)
Page Number: 5.1.28
Explanation and Analysis:

This profound line is offered in a long speech made by Leonato, in which he responds to his brother Antonio's attempts at consoling him. In the dramatic speech, Leonato says that those who aren't suffering can't possibly understand or help those who are. These people who aren't suffering think they can "charm ache with air and agony with words," but Leonato insists they can't. Thus, while he is focusing on grief, his speech is also about the limitations to the power of language. Language can cause people to fall in love and can deceive people, but according to Leonato language alone is insufficient to heal a deep wound or to cure suffering.

“For there was never yet philosopher
That could endure the toothache patiently,
However they have writ the style of gods
And made a push at chance and sufferance.”

Related Characters: Leonato (speaker)
Page Number: 5.1.37-40
Explanation and Analysis:

After the long speech, Antonio calls his brother childish, to which Leonato responds with the lines in the quote. He claims to be only "flesh and blood," saying that he is only human. He says that there has never been a philosopher who could "endure the toothache patiently," no matter how well he wrote and philosophized about fate, chance, and human suffering. Again, he is arguing that language and reason are insufficient to alleviate mortal suffering and pain.

Recall also how Benedick complained in Act 3, Scene 2 of a toothache when he had fallen in love. This echo links love and suffering, and asserts that both are deeper than language, that they belong to the body in the way that a toothache does, beyond language.

After this point, Antonio responds by suggesting that Leonato seek revenge on Claudio, Don Pedro, and Don John. Leonato agrees, since he has come to believe that someone is lying about Hero's supposed infidelity.

Act 5, Scene 2 Quotes

“I was not born under a rhyming planet.”

Related Characters: Benedick (speaker)
Page Number: 5.2.40-41
Explanation and Analysis:

Benedick speaks this line in a soliloquy after he has sent Margaret to get Beatrice. He sings a little song, attempting to find a way to communicate his feelings to Beatrice, and laments his poor singing ability. Because he wasn't "born under a rhyming planet," meaning he doesn't have any natural ability rhyme or write poetry, he says he can only come up with bad rhymes.

First, Benedick's reference to the planet under which he was born echoes Don John's assertion earlier in the play that he is evil because he was born under the planet Saturn. In each case, these men argue that their natures are determined by the stars; that they couldn't change or learn even if they wanted to. They proclaim, therefore, that their true natures are set no matter the perception of them. 

Meanwhile, Benedick's struggle with writing poetry speaks to the limitations of language brought up by the play, the way that it frustrates and confuses. (Benedick's struggle with rhyming is also ironic, since it is written by Shakespeare, a master poet.) At the same time, Benedick has been engaging in a war of wit and language play with Beatrice for much of the play, so it's not clear that he actually does have limitations with language. Perhaps, instead, he is making excuses for finding it difficult to express his love through language, which would then be another indication that love, like a toothache, is more profound, more of the body, than language can evoke.