Much Ado About Nothing

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Marriage, Shame and Freedom Theme Analysis

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.
Marriage, Shame and Freedom Theme Icon

For the characters of Much Ado About Nothing, romantic experiences are always connected to issues of freedom and shame. If dignity comes from having a strong and free will, then love, desire and marriage are a threat to it. This is the position taken by most of the characters. Benedick, for example, compares the married man to a tame, humiliated animal. The events of the play confirm this position on love and dignity taken by most of the characters. Benedick and Beatrice begin the play seeming witty, aloof and superior to the others. But by the end, their love has made them somewhat ridiculous. Like puppets, they are manipulated by their friends.

Ironically, Much Ado About Nothing suggests that the characters fear of shame in love is more likely to lead to embarrassment than love itself will. Terrified that marrying Hero will dishonor him, Claudio shames her publicly. But when the truth comes out, his outburst seems silly. The same goes for Beatrice and Benedick: their extreme resistance to love and marriage (and the accompanying shame and loss of freedom) makes them look all the more ridiculous when they finally give in. They also lose more of their freedom: while Claudio chooses Hero, Benedick and Beatrice are chosen for each other.

At the same time, Much Ado suggests that giving in to our strong feelings for other people is unavoidable. Despite the shame of going back on their principles, despite the knowledge that the whole thing was set up by others, Benedick and Beatrice are happy in love—perhaps this happiness is more important than dignity and freedom. As Benedick puts it, “man is a giddy thing,” and the play ends with joyous dancing.

Marriage, Shame and Freedom ThemeTracker

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Marriage, Shame and Freedom Quotes in Much Ado About Nothing

Below you will find the important quotes in Much Ado About Nothing related to the theme of Marriage, Shame and Freedom.
Act 1, Scene 1 Quotes

“Shall I never see a bachelor of threescore again?”

Related Characters: Benedick (speaker), Claudio
Related Symbols: Eyes
Page Number: 1.1.195-196
Explanation and Analysis:

Don Pedro and his men, including Benedick, have arrived at Leonato's house, Benedick and Beatrice quickly begin their verbal sparring, both saying that they are completely resistant to the charms of the opposite sex. Leonato then invites everyone to stay at his house for a month. Claudio subsequently tells Benedick that he is in love with Leonato's daughter, Hero. Benedick and Claudio then begin a conversation about Hero, love, marriage, and freedom, in which Benedick utters the quote shown here.

Benedick claims to cherish his status of bachelor, suggesting that marriage would constrict his freedom. He says that he isn't attracted to Hero, and he turns all of Claudio's praises into mockeries and insults to women and marriage in general. In this line, he asks, jokingly, if he'll ever see a 60-year-old bachelor again, since most men are so eager to get married. He claims that not enough men are committed to the bachelor life, comparing marriage to wearing a yoke like a beast of burden. Benedick's comment also adds humor and irony to the play, as a significant part of the rest of the play involves other characters trying to trick him into falling in love.

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“Well, as time shall try: ‘In time the savage bull doth bear the yoke.’”

Related Characters: Don Pedro (speaker), Benedick
Related Symbols: The Savage Bull
Page Number: 1.1.255-256
Explanation and Analysis:

Don Pedro has entered whil Claudio and Benedick are speaking about love. Benedick immediately reveals to Don Pedro that Claudio is in love with Hero. Though Claudio tries at first to deny it, ultimately he admits to his love. With a dramatic statement about being burned at the stake, Benedick claims that Hero is unworthy of Claudio's love. This point causes Don Pedro to accuse Benedick of being a "heretic" of love.

Don Pedro then says these words, a proverb, to suggest that Benedick will eventually fall in love himself. The proverb says that eventually, even the "savage bull" will "bear the yoke," playing on Benedick's own assertion that married men are like beasts of burden.

Note that the proverb is a line of iambic pentameter though the rest of the dialogue is in prose. This small detail helps underscore Don Pedro's prediction, which eventually comes to pass at the end of the play.

Act 2, Scene 1 Quotes

“Speak low, if you speak love.”

Related Characters: Don Pedro (speaker), Hero
Page Number: 2.1.97
Explanation and Analysis:

After Beatrice tells Hero that courtship is like a dance, the partygoers all arrive wearing masks. Don Pedro, pretending to be Claudio, immediately approaches and begins dancing with her. The two exchange some flirtations, before Don Pedro offers this romantic line: "Speak low, if you speak love." After this line, the pair moves aside and begin to whisper.

Don Pedro's words seem to imply that courtship should be secretive and done in whispers, which is ironic since he is pretending to be Claudio – it's a really secret courtship, with secrets kept even from Hero. However, while there is a romance to the secrecy of courtship, the play will also show how such secrecy can be destructive and leads to jealousy in general, and men's fear of being cuckolded more specifically, that can be particularly dangerous for women. Even in this scene, Claudio worries that Don Pedro is actually wooing Hero for himself. Later, Don John will make it appear that Hero has secretly been seeing other men, which causes Claudio to abandon Hero. So, just to make it clear: here Claudio is part of a scheme in which another man woos Hero for him, but later he immediately condemns Hero for allegedly seeing other men. The "secrecy" of love therefore seems to create a space not just for romance but also for masculine anxiety about love, and perhaps also misogyny toward women. 

“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.  

Act 2, Scene 3 Quotes

“One woman is fair, yet I am well; another is wise, yet I am well; another virtuous, yet I am well; but till all graces be in one woman, one woman shall not come in my grace.”

Related Characters: Benedick (speaker)
Page Number: 2.3.27-30
Explanation and Analysis:

In this scene Benedick soliloquizes in Leonato's garden. Benedick is frustrated that Claudio, whom he considered to be a perennial bachelor like himself, has become a lover and is getting married. Like Beatrice's response to Hero's engagement, in which the former starts to entertain the idea of marriage, Benedick begins to wonder if he will ever change his mind and get married. But like Beatrice, he constructs for himself a scenario in which he'll never find a suitable bride.

Here, he lists different desirable traits in potential wives: "fair," "wise," and"virtuous." Benedick then concludes that until all of these graces is combined in one perfect woman, he will not get married. Whereas earlier he refused to even consider marriage, now, given the social pressure of Claudio getting married, he can consider getting married, but still protects himself by deciding that he could only ever marry an idealized woman. Recall that he even criticized Hero, the woman who inspired Claudio's "perfectest" joy. 

Act 3, Scene 2 Quotes

“Even she: Leonato’s Hero, your Hero, every man’s Hero.”

Related Characters: Don John (speaker), Claudio
Related Symbols: Eyes
Page Number: 3.2.99-100
Explanation and Analysis:

Having failed to stop the courtship and engagement between Claudio and Hero, Don John now seeks to stop their impending marriage. To do so, he plans to put together a fake scene of Hero and a lover in the window to convince Claudio that his fiancee is being unfaithful. When Don John says that she has been disloyal, Claudio clarifies with, "who, Hero?" to which Don John responds with the quote, "Even she."

The end of the sentence is devastatingly simple: "Leonato's Hero, your Hero, every man's Hero." By mentioning Leonato, Don John makes the claim specific to Hero herself, by mentioning Claudio he makes the claim personal to Claudio, and with "every man's Hero" he delivers the harsh accusation that many men have been with her. Claudio and Don Pedro remain unconvinced, but decide to shame Hero together if they find out that the claims are true.

The simplicity of Don John's speech is well aligned with his tactics. While other characters (like Hero herself) stage false conversations to be overheard, Don John stages a false image to be seen. His deception relies on the eyes instead of ears; he insists that they witness visually. This insistence might be loosely related to Othello's demand for "ocular proof" when he believes his wife is unfaithful in Othello. Perhaps love can be generated by one sense alone, either sight or hearing (or overhearing exactly what someone wants to you hear), but infidelity and heartbreak need to be verified with proof – the senses must be checked against one another. 

Meanwhile, note how quickly Don Pedro and Claudio decide to shame Hero if they think she has been unfaithful. Love in the play turns quickly to misogynistic rage, again suggesting just how anxious men are with the idea of love, language, and fear of their wive's possible infidelity.

It is also worth noting that the word "Nothing" was also used in Shakespearean times to refer to a woman's sexual parts. And so the title of the play refers to the fact that the plot of the play involves much ado about sex, about virginity, and about all the misunderstandings ("nothings") about such "nothings."

Act 3, Scene 3 Quotes

“I think they that touch pitch will be defiled.”

Related Characters: Dogberry (speaker)
Page Number: 3.3.55-56
Explanation and Analysis:

In this scene the constable Dogberry and the night watch are introduced. The quote is Dogberry's (ridiculous) reasoning for leaving criminals alone: touching something dirty makes you dirty, so it's safer to let criminals do what they want. Yet the fact that Dogberry's logic is so obviously ridiculous only highlights the incredible fact that this line also relates to the way that characters in the play view shame. Claudio is willing to publicly shame Hero to distance himself from her, since by appearing with her and marrying her when she is ashamed, he would become tainted ("defiled") and become shamed as well.

Throughout this scene Dogberry shows his incompetence and hilarious lack of intelligence, as he constantly misuses words, misunderstands situations, and advises his men to allow criminal behavior. Dogberry's position allows for a humorous dramatic irony and for the plot of the play to be extended. Later in the scene, Dogberry and his men will learn about Don John's plans, but the incompetence of the nights watch will prevent them from making this discovery known until the very end of the play.

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.

“But mine , and mine I lov'd , and mine I prais'd,
And mine that I was proud on, mine so much
That I myself was to myself not mine,
Valuing of her; why, she— O! she is fallen Into a pit of ink…”

Related Characters: Leonato (speaker), Hero
Page Number: 4.1.144-148
Explanation and Analysis:

Hero has fainted at Claudio's accusation of her infidelity, and after briefly being unconscious as been revived. Leonato seems to be upset that she's still alive, supposing that she had died of shame at the accusations. Here Leonato laments the shame brought to him by his own child. He begins with the fact that she is his with "mine" and slowly builds, repeating mine and adding new modifiers with increasing length: "mine I lov'd, and mine I prais'd, and mine that I was proud on." He concludes the crescendoing list with the stunning assertion that she was so much his daughter that "I myself was to myself not mine," suggesting that he completely lost himself in his role as her father. When he finishes by saying that this daughter, inextricably tied to him, has "fallen into a pit of ink," he is saying that she is tainted, and recalling Dogberry's line "they that touch pitch will be defiled," that now he is tainted and shamed as well.

Note again how quickly, and with how little evidence, men – this time Hero's father – believe that a woman has been unfaithful. Throughout the play there is a current of just how mistrustful men are of women, just how much men fear and believe that women are always on the verge of betraying them sexually (and of course the sense that men have that they should naturally have control over women's sexuality). It really is remarkable that in a play so focused on love, there is this constant sense of men's mistrust and misogyny toward women.

“O! that I were a man for his sake, or that I had any friend would be a man for my sake! But manhood is melted into courtesies, valour into compliment, and men are only turned into tongue, and trim ones too: he is now as valiant as Hercules, that only tells a lie and swears it. I cannot be a man with wishing, therefore I will die a woman with grieving.”

Related Characters: Beatrice (speaker)
Page Number: 4.1.331-338
Explanation and Analysis:

The Friar has concocted a plan in which Hero will pretend to be dead while Leonato gets to the bottom of her accusation, the hope being that it will make Claudio even more thrilled to marry her when he finds out she is actually alive (though modern audiences might object that Hero might not want to marry Claudio after he mistrusted and then shamed her). Now, Beatrice and Benedick are alone on stage; the pair has just admitted they are in love with each other, and Beatrice is upset by what has happened to Hero. Beatrice asks Benedick to kill Claudio for her.

When Benedick refuses, Beatrice speaks the lines quoted. She wishes that she were a man so that she could kill Claudio herself, or that Benedick would be a man and do it. But, she laments, classical manliness has faded, and devolved into only language. Valor, she says, has become nothing more than lying and false oaths. Since she cannot be a man simply because of her wish to become one, she concludes that she'll die as a woman because of her grief. Beatrice's criticism of manliness and the prevalence of language over action speaks to the theme of the play, in which nothing really happens but talk and falsity. It also inspires Benedick to agree to kill Claudio.

Act 5, Scene 4 Quotes

“…get thee a wife, get thee a wife: there is no staff more reverent than one tipped with horn.”

Related Characters: Benedick (speaker), Beatrice
Related Symbols: The Savage Bull
Page Number: 5.4.126-128
Explanation and Analysis:

The drama of the play has been resolved, with all plots and confusions rectified. Hero's innocence has been established, and she and Claudio have married. Beatrice and Benedick learn that they have been tricked and set up by their friends, but nonetheless agree that they are truly in love and agree they too will wed. Benedick's views on marriage have changed: he excitedly insists on music and dancing, and even advises Don Pedro to get married. Benedick tells Don Pedro that he seems sad, and repeats the idea that he should get a wife.

It seems, then, that the play has resolved completely in favor of marriage. Yet Benedick's line that "there is no staff more reverent than one tipped with a horn" complicates things. A man who had horns was the standard description of a cuckold – a man who's wife has been unfaithful. What exactly Benedick is saying here is not clear. He may be implying that all women will eventually be unfaithful, and so all married men are essentially cuckolds. He may be suggesting that married men, because they are vulnerable to being cuckolded if their wives are unfaithful, love their wives (are "more reverent") more than they would otherwise. And he may just be joking about the idea that women are likely to make men cuckolds. Nonetheless, even as the play ends happily, with a marriage complete and another to come, it continues to complicate the very idea of love and marriage with male anxiety about female infidelity and the associated shame.