Much Ado About Nothing

by

William Shakespeare

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Much Ado About Nothing: Motifs 7 key examples

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Definition of Motif
A motif is an element or idea that recurs throughout a work of literature. Motifs, which are often collections of related symbols, help develop the central themes of a book... read full definition
A motif is an element or idea that recurs throughout a work of literature. Motifs, which are often collections of related symbols, help develop the... read full definition
A motif is an element or idea that recurs throughout a work of literature. Motifs, which are often collections of... read full definition
Act 1, Scene 1
Explanation and Analysis—Blind Cupid:

Allusions to Cupid abound in Much Ado About Nothing. As a god of love from classical mythology who is blind and armed with arrows, Cupid embodies the fickleness of love. 

When Don Pedro declares in Act 1, Scene 1 that he will one day see Benedick "look pale with love", Benedick insists: 

With anger, with sickness, or with hunger, my lord, not with love. Prove that ever I lose more blood with love than I will get again with drinking, pick out mine eyes with a ballad-maker’s pen and hang me up at the door of a brothel house for the sign of blind Cupid.

The suggestion that Benedick will be able to substitute for "blind Cupid" if he ever falls in love contrary to his stated beliefs implicitly highlights Benedick's own "blindness" to the fact that he will later fall in love with Beatrice. The allusion also establishes a parallel between Cupid shooting his arrows without seeing his target and love striking Benedick, Beatrice, Claudio, and Hero where they least expect it. Indeed, when Hero prepares to hold a staged conversation in Act 3, Scene 1 that will convince Beatrice that Benedick is in love with her, she declares:

Of this matter
Is little Cupid’s crafty arrow made,  
That only wounds by hearsay.

Since Cupid is blind, he can only use what he hears—"hearsay"—as a guide when shooting his arrows. Likewise, Hero, Beatrice, and Benedick all fall in love without the use of sight: Hero falls in love with Claudio while both are masked at the ball, and Benedick and Beatrice fall in love by eavesdropping on their friends. Cupid is therefore a suitable figure to encapsulate both the unpredictability of love and the use of rumors and eavesdropping to spark romance in the play.

Explanation and Analysis—Cuckold's Horns:

In Much Ado About Nothing, the motif of cuckoldry not only contributes to the humor of the play but also illuminates the play's underlying anxiety about the prospect of women's infidelity. 

Cuckoldry is often a source of comedy in the characters' witty exchanges. For example, when the Prince acknowledges Hero in Act 1, Scene 1 by saying to Leonato, "I think this is your daughter," Leonato responds with a quip about his daughter's legitimacy: "Her mother hath many times told me so." In particular, the symbol of "the savage bull" compares a married man to a bull "tamed" by his wife. In Shakespeare's day, cuckolds were typically pictured as wearing a pair of horns. As a result, the bull's horns in this motif suggest that marriage places a man at risk of humiliation if his wife betrays him, thus turning him into a cuckold. This generates a great deal of witty banter in the play. In Act 1, Scene 1, for instance, the Prince responds to Benedick's opposition to marriage by jokingly saying, "In time the savage bull doth bear the yoke." The prospect of cuckoldry thus presents a looming and inevitable threat of humiliation to the male characters.

The play, however, also exposes the dark side of this male anxiety around cuckoldry. When Hero is falsely accused of being unfaithful to Claudio, she loses her reputation, Claudio's love, and her father's favor. Leonato's brutal language while berating Hero in Act 4, Scene 1 for her alleged promiscuity is especially illuminating: 

But mine, and mine I loved, and mine I praised,
And mine that I was proud on, mine so much
That I myself was to myself not mine,
Valuing of her—[...]

Leonato's repetition of the possessive pronoun "mine" foregrounds the possessiveness that underlies the male fear of losing control over their wives. In this way, although the motif of cuckoldry is often a source of comedy in the play, it also illustrates the oppressiveness of contemporary gender roles. 

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Explanation and Analysis—A Merry War:

Through the motif of war, Shakespeare compares and contrasts courtship with battle. Benedick, Claudio, and the Prince make frequent references to war due to their recent arrival from the battlefield. In Messina, however, they find themselves in a completely different context. In Act 1, Scene 1, Claudio describes his newfound love of Hero as a shift in his perception: he stops using the eyes of a soldier and starts using those of a lover.

O, my lord,
When you went onward on this ended action,
I looked upon her with a soldier’s eye,
That liked, but had a rougher task in hand
Than to drive liking to the name of love.
But now I am returned and that war thoughts
Have left their places vacant, in their rooms
Come thronging soft and delicate desires,
All prompting me how fair young Hero is,
Saying I liked her ere I went to wars.

Using the metaphor of a house, Claudio suggests that thoughts of love have now replaced thoughts of war in his mind. This illustrates how greatly his mindset has changed after his return from the battlefield.

However, although the romance plots that entangle the men in Messina seem trivial by comparison to the military matters to which the men are accustomed, the challenges of courtship often resemble those of war. Indeed, Leonato explicitly describes the hostility between Beatrice and Benedick as a "merry war" or "skirmish of wit" in Act 1, Scene 1. The numerous allusions to Cupid, the god of love armed with arrows, also encapsulate this relationship between courtship and war. In Act 3, Scene 2, for instance, Hero notes, "Some Cupid kills with arrows, some with traps." Love, then, can be just as violent as war. 

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Act 2, Scene 1
Explanation and Analysis—Marriage as Fashion:

The characters in Much Ado About Nothing frequently talk about fashion as a way of describing one's choice of a marital partner. The motif of fashion compares marital partners to clothing items that are donned and discarded on a whim.

In Act 2, Scene 1, for instance, the Prince jokingly asks Beatrice whether she would consider marrying him. She replies:

No, my lord, unless I might have another for working days. Your Grace is too costly to wear every day.

In this moment, Beatrice uses a fashion metaphor to compare the Prince to an article of clothing that is too expensive for everyday use.

In Act 2, Scene 2, Benedick similarly draws on the fashion motif to articulate Claudio's transformation after falling in love with Hero: 

I have known when he would have walked ten mile afoot to see a good armor, and now will he lie ten nights awake carving the fashion of a new doublet.

According to Benedick, Claudio was more interested in "armor," or military fashion, before he fell in love. Now that he is smitten with Hero, he is more interested in a "doublet," an article that he would wear to impress Hero rather than to go to battle. Through this metaphor, Benedick suggests that, like fashion, romantic love is a superficial matter, thereby highlighting his own aversion to marriage at this point in the play. 

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Act 2, Scene 2
Explanation and Analysis—Marriage as Fashion:

The characters in Much Ado About Nothing frequently talk about fashion as a way of describing one's choice of a marital partner. The motif of fashion compares marital partners to clothing items that are donned and discarded on a whim.

In Act 2, Scene 1, for instance, the Prince jokingly asks Beatrice whether she would consider marrying him. She replies:

No, my lord, unless I might have another for working days. Your Grace is too costly to wear every day.

In this moment, Beatrice uses a fashion metaphor to compare the Prince to an article of clothing that is too expensive for everyday use.

In Act 2, Scene 2, Benedick similarly draws on the fashion motif to articulate Claudio's transformation after falling in love with Hero: 

I have known when he would have walked ten mile afoot to see a good armor, and now will he lie ten nights awake carving the fashion of a new doublet.

According to Benedick, Claudio was more interested in "armor," or military fashion, before he fell in love. Now that he is smitten with Hero, he is more interested in a "doublet," an article that he would wear to impress Hero rather than to go to battle. Through this metaphor, Benedick suggests that, like fashion, romantic love is a superficial matter, thereby highlighting his own aversion to marriage at this point in the play. 

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Act 2, Scene 3
Explanation and Analysis—Sick in Love:

Using the motif of illness, Shakespeare portrays love as something contagious, troublesome, beyond one's control. This is particularly important in the case of Benedick and Beatrice, who fall in love with each other contrary to their aversion to each other.

Indeed, the play frequently compares their burgeoning love for each other to an illness. For instance, when a staged conversation between Claudio, Leonato, and the Prince in Act 2, Scene 3 succeeds in convincing Benedick that Beatrice is in love with him, Claudio tells the Prince in an aside, "He hath ta’en th’ infection." Similarly, Hero declares in Act 3, Scene 1 that her staged conversation with Ursula must convey the fact that "Benedick / Is sick in love with Beatrice." Finally, the parallel between Benedick's "toothache" in Act 3, Scene 2 and Beatrice being "stuffed" Act 3, Scene 4 is a tongue-in-cheek reference to the fact that both are "lovesick." In this way, Shakespeare compares love to a contagious illness that Beatrice and Benedick fail to avoid catching—and that proves vexing for both parties.

The motif of illness, however, is also associated with Don John. Since Don John is a "bastard," his self-declared association with disease suggests that illegitimacy or adulterous sexual relations are also a kind of disease—and could also allude to sexually transmitted infection​​​​​​. In fact, he compares himself to a disease, stating that he "had rather be a canker in a hedge than a rose in [the Prince's] grace." When Don John learns of Claudio's burgeoning romance with Hero in Act 2, Scene 2, he also uses the language of disease: 

Any bar, any cross, any impediment will be med’cinable to me. I am sick in displeasure to him, and whatsoever comes athwart his affection ranges evenly with mine. How canst thou cross this marriage?

Don John's assertion here that any obstruction to Claudio and Hero's marriage will be "medi'cinable" to his "displeasure" is striking: it presents illegitimacy as a disease with which Don John is born—and whose only remedy is vengeance through the destruction of legitimate marriages. The motif of illness thus illuminates not only the unpredictability of love, but also the boundary between socially permissible and impermissible forms of sexuality. 

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Explanation and Analysis—Noting Nothing :

Throughout the play, the motif of "noting" highlights the unreliability of human perception. The very title of the play is a pun on the word "nothing," which was pronounced "noting" (meaning "observing") in Shakespearean times and also referred to women's genitalia. The pun on "noting" appears most prominently in Act 2, Scene 3 in a witty exchange between Balthazar and the Prince: 

BALTHAZAR: Note this before my notes:
There’s not a note of mine that’s worth the noting.

PRINCE: Why, these are very crotchets that he speaks!
Note notes, forsooth, and nothing.

In the exchange above, "note" means "to observe," but it also refers to musical notes. In addition, the Prince's final line compares musical notes to "nothing," suggesting that what one hears—rumors and gossip—have no actual value. 

Indeed, both sight and hearing prove unreliable throughout the play, as characters disguise themselves and eavesdrop to generate rumors and manipulate others' perception of reality. For example, Beatrice and Benedick fall in love with each other when they eavesdrop on staged conversations by their friends, and this leads each of them to believe that the other is already enamored of them. Meanwhile, Don John creates the illusion of Hero's infidelity by staging an interaction between Margaret and Borachio in disguise. Through the motif of "noting," then, Shakespeare highlights how easily human perception can be manipulated. On the other hand, it is the friar's visual observation of Hero—his "noting of the lady"—that ultimately helps the characters arrive at the truth: that Hero has, in fact, been faithful to Claudio. Noting, then, is both a tool of deception and a source of truth. 

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Act 3, Scene 1
Explanation and Analysis:

In Act 3, Scene 1, Hero implements her side of the plot to make Beatrice and Benedick fall in love. Her use of rich figurative language contributes to the motif of war. She instructs Margaret to bring Beatrice to the "bower," where she will overhear a staged conversation between Hero and Ursula in which they reveal that Benedick is already smitten with her.

Say that thou overheardst us,
And bid her steal into the pleachèd bower
Where honeysuckles ripened by the sun
Forbid the sun to enter, like favorites,
Made proud by princes, that advance their pride
Against that power that bred it. There will she hide her
To listen our purpose.

Hero's instructions contain a combination of rich nature imagery and the language of military betrayal: the honeysuckles are "proud," as if they're betraying their masters. This suggests that the "bower" is a site of both romance and subterfuge. By comparing the honeysuckles in the bowers to "favorites," Hero also alludes to Benedick's comment in Act 1, Scene 1: "Then is courtesy a turncoat." Like a turncoat, Hero suggests, Beatrice's present opposition to marriage could betray her.

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Explanation and Analysis—Blind Cupid:

Allusions to Cupid abound in Much Ado About Nothing. As a god of love from classical mythology who is blind and armed with arrows, Cupid embodies the fickleness of love. 

When Don Pedro declares in Act 1, Scene 1 that he will one day see Benedick "look pale with love", Benedick insists: 

With anger, with sickness, or with hunger, my lord, not with love. Prove that ever I lose more blood with love than I will get again with drinking, pick out mine eyes with a ballad-maker’s pen and hang me up at the door of a brothel house for the sign of blind Cupid.

The suggestion that Benedick will be able to substitute for "blind Cupid" if he ever falls in love contrary to his stated beliefs implicitly highlights Benedick's own "blindness" to the fact that he will later fall in love with Beatrice. The allusion also establishes a parallel between Cupid shooting his arrows without seeing his target and love striking Benedick, Beatrice, Claudio, and Hero where they least expect it. Indeed, when Hero prepares to hold a staged conversation in Act 3, Scene 1 that will convince Beatrice that Benedick is in love with her, she declares:

Of this matter
Is little Cupid’s crafty arrow made,  
That only wounds by hearsay.

Since Cupid is blind, he can only use what he hears—"hearsay"—as a guide when shooting his arrows. Likewise, Hero, Beatrice, and Benedick all fall in love without the use of sight: Hero falls in love with Claudio while both are masked at the ball, and Benedick and Beatrice fall in love by eavesdropping on their friends. Cupid is therefore a suitable figure to encapsulate both the unpredictability of love and the use of rumors and eavesdropping to spark romance in the play.

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Explanation and Analysis—Sick in Love:

Using the motif of illness, Shakespeare portrays love as something contagious, troublesome, beyond one's control. This is particularly important in the case of Benedick and Beatrice, who fall in love with each other contrary to their aversion to each other.

Indeed, the play frequently compares their burgeoning love for each other to an illness. For instance, when a staged conversation between Claudio, Leonato, and the Prince in Act 2, Scene 3 succeeds in convincing Benedick that Beatrice is in love with him, Claudio tells the Prince in an aside, "He hath ta’en th’ infection." Similarly, Hero declares in Act 3, Scene 1 that her staged conversation with Ursula must convey the fact that "Benedick / Is sick in love with Beatrice." Finally, the parallel between Benedick's "toothache" in Act 3, Scene 2 and Beatrice being "stuffed" Act 3, Scene 4 is a tongue-in-cheek reference to the fact that both are "lovesick." In this way, Shakespeare compares love to a contagious illness that Beatrice and Benedick fail to avoid catching—and that proves vexing for both parties.

The motif of illness, however, is also associated with Don John. Since Don John is a "bastard," his self-declared association with disease suggests that illegitimacy or adulterous sexual relations are also a kind of disease—and could also allude to sexually transmitted infection​​​​​​. In fact, he compares himself to a disease, stating that he "had rather be a canker in a hedge than a rose in [the Prince's] grace." When Don John learns of Claudio's burgeoning romance with Hero in Act 2, Scene 2, he also uses the language of disease: 

Any bar, any cross, any impediment will be med’cinable to me. I am sick in displeasure to him, and whatsoever comes athwart his affection ranges evenly with mine. How canst thou cross this marriage?

Don John's assertion here that any obstruction to Claudio and Hero's marriage will be "medi'cinable" to his "displeasure" is striking: it presents illegitimacy as a disease with which Don John is born—and whose only remedy is vengeance through the destruction of legitimate marriages. The motif of illness thus illuminates not only the unpredictability of love, but also the boundary between socially permissible and impermissible forms of sexuality. 

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Explanation and Analysis—A Merry War:

Through the motif of war, Shakespeare compares and contrasts courtship with battle. Benedick, Claudio, and the Prince make frequent references to war due to their recent arrival from the battlefield. In Messina, however, they find themselves in a completely different context. In Act 1, Scene 1, Claudio describes his newfound love of Hero as a shift in his perception: he stops using the eyes of a soldier and starts using those of a lover.

O, my lord,
When you went onward on this ended action,
I looked upon her with a soldier’s eye,
That liked, but had a rougher task in hand
Than to drive liking to the name of love.
But now I am returned and that war thoughts
Have left their places vacant, in their rooms
Come thronging soft and delicate desires,
All prompting me how fair young Hero is,
Saying I liked her ere I went to wars.

Using the metaphor of a house, Claudio suggests that thoughts of love have now replaced thoughts of war in his mind. This illustrates how greatly his mindset has changed after his return from the battlefield.

However, although the romance plots that entangle the men in Messina seem trivial by comparison to the military matters to which the men are accustomed, the challenges of courtship often resemble those of war. Indeed, Leonato explicitly describes the hostility between Beatrice and Benedick as a "merry war" or "skirmish of wit" in Act 1, Scene 1. The numerous allusions to Cupid, the god of love armed with arrows, also encapsulate this relationship between courtship and war. In Act 3, Scene 2, for instance, Hero notes, "Some Cupid kills with arrows, some with traps." Love, then, can be just as violent as war. 

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Act 3, Scene 2
Explanation and Analysis—Sick in Love:

Using the motif of illness, Shakespeare portrays love as something contagious, troublesome, beyond one's control. This is particularly important in the case of Benedick and Beatrice, who fall in love with each other contrary to their aversion to each other.

Indeed, the play frequently compares their burgeoning love for each other to an illness. For instance, when a staged conversation between Claudio, Leonato, and the Prince in Act 2, Scene 3 succeeds in convincing Benedick that Beatrice is in love with him, Claudio tells the Prince in an aside, "He hath ta’en th’ infection." Similarly, Hero declares in Act 3, Scene 1 that her staged conversation with Ursula must convey the fact that "Benedick / Is sick in love with Beatrice." Finally, the parallel between Benedick's "toothache" in Act 3, Scene 2 and Beatrice being "stuffed" Act 3, Scene 4 is a tongue-in-cheek reference to the fact that both are "lovesick." In this way, Shakespeare compares love to a contagious illness that Beatrice and Benedick fail to avoid catching—and that proves vexing for both parties.

The motif of illness, however, is also associated with Don John. Since Don John is a "bastard," his self-declared association with disease suggests that illegitimacy or adulterous sexual relations are also a kind of disease—and could also allude to sexually transmitted infection​​​​​​. In fact, he compares himself to a disease, stating that he "had rather be a canker in a hedge than a rose in [the Prince's] grace." When Don John learns of Claudio's burgeoning romance with Hero in Act 2, Scene 2, he also uses the language of disease: 

Any bar, any cross, any impediment will be med’cinable to me. I am sick in displeasure to him, and whatsoever comes athwart his affection ranges evenly with mine. How canst thou cross this marriage?

Don John's assertion here that any obstruction to Claudio and Hero's marriage will be "medi'cinable" to his "displeasure" is striking: it presents illegitimacy as a disease with which Don John is born—and whose only remedy is vengeance through the destruction of legitimate marriages. The motif of illness thus illuminates not only the unpredictability of love, but also the boundary between socially permissible and impermissible forms of sexuality. 

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Act 3, Scene 4
Explanation and Analysis—Sick in Love:

Using the motif of illness, Shakespeare portrays love as something contagious, troublesome, beyond one's control. This is particularly important in the case of Benedick and Beatrice, who fall in love with each other contrary to their aversion to each other.

Indeed, the play frequently compares their burgeoning love for each other to an illness. For instance, when a staged conversation between Claudio, Leonato, and the Prince in Act 2, Scene 3 succeeds in convincing Benedick that Beatrice is in love with him, Claudio tells the Prince in an aside, "He hath ta’en th’ infection." Similarly, Hero declares in Act 3, Scene 1 that her staged conversation with Ursula must convey the fact that "Benedick / Is sick in love with Beatrice." Finally, the parallel between Benedick's "toothache" in Act 3, Scene 2 and Beatrice being "stuffed" Act 3, Scene 4 is a tongue-in-cheek reference to the fact that both are "lovesick." In this way, Shakespeare compares love to a contagious illness that Beatrice and Benedick fail to avoid catching—and that proves vexing for both parties.

The motif of illness, however, is also associated with Don John. Since Don John is a "bastard," his self-declared association with disease suggests that illegitimacy or adulterous sexual relations are also a kind of disease—and could also allude to sexually transmitted infection​​​​​​. In fact, he compares himself to a disease, stating that he "had rather be a canker in a hedge than a rose in [the Prince's] grace." When Don John learns of Claudio's burgeoning romance with Hero in Act 2, Scene 2, he also uses the language of disease: 

Any bar, any cross, any impediment will be med’cinable to me. I am sick in displeasure to him, and whatsoever comes athwart his affection ranges evenly with mine. How canst thou cross this marriage?

Don John's assertion here that any obstruction to Claudio and Hero's marriage will be "medi'cinable" to his "displeasure" is striking: it presents illegitimacy as a disease with which Don John is born—and whose only remedy is vengeance through the destruction of legitimate marriages. The motif of illness thus illuminates not only the unpredictability of love, but also the boundary between socially permissible and impermissible forms of sexuality. 

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Act 4, Scene 1
Explanation and Analysis—Cuckold's Horns:

In Much Ado About Nothing, the motif of cuckoldry not only contributes to the humor of the play but also illuminates the play's underlying anxiety about the prospect of women's infidelity. 

Cuckoldry is often a source of comedy in the characters' witty exchanges. For example, when the Prince acknowledges Hero in Act 1, Scene 1 by saying to Leonato, "I think this is your daughter," Leonato responds with a quip about his daughter's legitimacy: "Her mother hath many times told me so." In particular, the symbol of "the savage bull" compares a married man to a bull "tamed" by his wife. In Shakespeare's day, cuckolds were typically pictured as wearing a pair of horns. As a result, the bull's horns in this motif suggest that marriage places a man at risk of humiliation if his wife betrays him, thus turning him into a cuckold. This generates a great deal of witty banter in the play. In Act 1, Scene 1, for instance, the Prince responds to Benedick's opposition to marriage by jokingly saying, "In time the savage bull doth bear the yoke." The prospect of cuckoldry thus presents a looming and inevitable threat of humiliation to the male characters.

The play, however, also exposes the dark side of this male anxiety around cuckoldry. When Hero is falsely accused of being unfaithful to Claudio, she loses her reputation, Claudio's love, and her father's favor. Leonato's brutal language while berating Hero in Act 4, Scene 1 for her alleged promiscuity is especially illuminating: 

But mine, and mine I loved, and mine I praised,
And mine that I was proud on, mine so much
That I myself was to myself not mine,
Valuing of her—[...]

Leonato's repetition of the possessive pronoun "mine" foregrounds the possessiveness that underlies the male fear of losing control over their wives. In this way, although the motif of cuckoldry is often a source of comedy in the play, it also illustrates the oppressiveness of contemporary gender roles. 

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Explanation and Analysis—Noting Nothing :

Throughout the play, the motif of "noting" highlights the unreliability of human perception. The very title of the play is a pun on the word "nothing," which was pronounced "noting" (meaning "observing") in Shakespearean times and also referred to women's genitalia. The pun on "noting" appears most prominently in Act 2, Scene 3 in a witty exchange between Balthazar and the Prince: 

BALTHAZAR: Note this before my notes:
There’s not a note of mine that’s worth the noting.

PRINCE: Why, these are very crotchets that he speaks!
Note notes, forsooth, and nothing.

In the exchange above, "note" means "to observe," but it also refers to musical notes. In addition, the Prince's final line compares musical notes to "nothing," suggesting that what one hears—rumors and gossip—have no actual value. 

Indeed, both sight and hearing prove unreliable throughout the play, as characters disguise themselves and eavesdrop to generate rumors and manipulate others' perception of reality. For example, Beatrice and Benedick fall in love with each other when they eavesdrop on staged conversations by their friends, and this leads each of them to believe that the other is already enamored of them. Meanwhile, Don John creates the illusion of Hero's infidelity by staging an interaction between Margaret and Borachio in disguise. Through the motif of "noting," then, Shakespeare highlights how easily human perception can be manipulated. On the other hand, it is the friar's visual observation of Hero—his "noting of the lady"—that ultimately helps the characters arrive at the truth: that Hero has, in fact, been faithful to Claudio. Noting, then, is both a tool of deception and a source of truth. 

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