Much Ado About Nothing

by

William Shakespeare

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Much Ado About Nothing: Situational Irony 6 key examples

Read our modern English translation.
Act 1, Scene 1
Explanation and Analysis:

By positioning the lovesick Claudio and Hero as foils for Benedick and Beatrice respectively, the play not only generates some humor, but also makes the eventual marriage between the latter two characters even more surprising.

Claudio and Hero are the quintessential protagonists of a romance plot: Claudio falls in love with Hero at first sight, and Hero reciprocates his feelings as soon as he woos her (with the Prince's assistance). Benedick and Beatrice, on the other hand, vehemently oppose marriage—and openly despise each other—at the beginning of the play. Indeed, the two require an elaborate scheme devised by their friends in order to fall in love. This contrast between the romantic pairings is a source of humor throughout the play. For example, when Claudio first falls in love with Hero in Act 1, Scene 1, the contrast between his expressions of love allows Benedick's sarcastic wit to shine: 

CLAUDIO: Can the world buy such a jewel?

BENEDICK: Yea, and a case to put it into.

Likewise, Hero's demure personality serves to accentuate Beatrice's stubborn and outspoken one. Beatrice's language crystallizes this contrast in Act 1, Scene 1, when she resists Leonato's suggestion that Hero should be "ruled" by her father: 

Yes, faith, it is my cousin’s duty to make curtsy and say “Father, as it please you.” But yet for all that, cousin, let him be a handsome fellow, or else make another curtsy and say “Father, as it please me.”

Nevertheless, Beatrice and Benedick get married at the end of the play along with their foils, Claudio and Hero—a prime example of situational irony. In this way, the play's use of foils not only contributes to the humorous tone of the play but also enhances the impact of the final, ironic romantic coupling of Beatrice and Benedick. 

Explanation and Analysis:

The ultimate example of situational irony in the play is the marriage of Beatrice and Benedick. It is deeply ironic that the two characters who most vocally oppose marriage end up not only married, but married to each other. This use of situational irony contributes to the comic tone of the play and foregrounds the unpredictable nature of love. 

Both Beatrice and Benedick express their contempt for marriage at the beginning of the play. Moreover, the two openly despise each other, making the prospect of their marriage seem even more unlikely. In the very first scene, Beatrice tells Benedick, "I had rather hear my dog bark at a crow than a man swear he loves me," while Benedick insists that he "will live a bachelor." In fact, Benedick mocks men in love at the beginning of the play, but his strong opinions on the matter almost seem to underhandedly foreshadow what's to come, since his unromantic opinions are so pronounced that the audience intuitively prepares for them to change. Indeed, once he falls in love with Beatrice, Benedick becomes just like the lovers he used to mock. The comedic effect of his ironic transformation is particularly evident in Act 3, Scene 2, in which Benedick becomes the subject of Claudio and the Prince's mockery and even admits, "Gallants, I am not as I have been." The scene thus shows that the "savage bull" has, despite Benedick's insistence, been tamed. 

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Act 2, Scene 1
Explanation and Analysis—Hercules :

Throughout the play, Benedick and Beatrice's allusions to Hercules, a hero in classical mythology known for his strength, track the shift in their relationship. In particular, these allusions to Hercules reveal the gradual change in Benedick's feelings toward Beatrice. 

In Act 2, Scene 1, Benedick suggests that he does not want to be like Hercules because Beatrice would tyrannize him despite his strength: "She would have made Hercules have turned spit, yea, and have cleft his club to make the fire, too," he says, suggesting that Hercules would, in this scenario, cook for Beatrice.

In Act 3, Scene 3, after the two have fallen in love, Beatrice positions Hercules as the ideal man and challenges Benedick to rise to his example, lamenting that "he is now as valiant as Hercules that only tells a lie and swears it." In other words, a man of genuine Herculean caliber would prove the love he swears to have for Beatrice by killing Claudio to avenge her cousin. Now smitten with Beatrice, Benedick agrees to kill his friend—and thus rises to the challenge of becoming like Hercules to prove his love. In doing so, he ironically proves his earlier statement true: he's now willing to do anything for her, it seems, just as Hercules would be willing to cook for her instead of going about his normal activities as a buff hero.

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Explanation and Analysis—Adam's Sons:

Through the use of allusions to the biblical Adam, Beatrice and Benedick affirm their opposition to marriage. When Leonato expresses his desire to see Beatrice marry in Act 2, Scene 1, Beatrice replies:

Not till God make men of some other metal than earth. Would it not grieve a woman to be overmastered with a piece of valiant dust? To make an account of her life to a clod of wayward marl? No, uncle, I’ll none. Adam’s sons are my brethren, and truly I hold it a sin to match in my kindred.

Later in the same scene, Benedick declares to the Prince that he would not marry Beatrice "though she were endowed with all that Adam had left him before he transgressed"—that is, the Garden of Eden. It is ironic that, despite the pair's outward hostility toward each other, they are prone to using the same allusions. In fact, Beatrice's comment that she would not marry a man because all men are "Adam's sons" (making them her relatives) further implies that she and Benedick are alike. Beatrice and Benedick's shared allusion to Adam thus foreshadows the fact that they are well-matched romantically despite their fraught relationship. 

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Act 3, Scene 3
Explanation and Analysis—Dogberry's Malapropisms:

In Much Ado About Nothing, irony frequently appears in exchanges between Dogberry and Verges. Through their perpetual misuse of words—known as malapropisms—both characters end up saying the opposite of what they mean. One might think this would count as verbal irony, but these misunderstandings actually lead to situational irony, since verbal irony requires speakers to purposefully misrepresent themselves. In this case, though, Dogberry and Verges often end up saying the opposite of what they mean, but they do so by accident, thus turning the irony on themselves. This dynamic contributes to the humorous tone of the play, highlighting the ability of language to distort the truth. 

For example, Dogberry and Verges's exchange in Act 3, Scene 3 is littered with malapropisms: 

DOGBERRY: Are you good men and true?

VERGES: Yea, or else it were pity but they should suffer salvation, body and soul.

DOGBERRY: Nay, that were a punishment too good for them if they should have any allegiance in them, being chosen for the Prince’s watch.

What Verges means by "salvation" is its opposite: damnation. Similarly, when Dogberry uses the word "allegiance," he actually means "disloyalty." In both cases, Verges and Dogberry use words that mean precisely the opposite of what they intend. 

It is ironic, then, that it is ultimately Dogberry and Verges who uncover the truth of Hero's faithfulness to Claudio—not noble and educated characters like Claudio or the Prince who have an excellent command of language. Contrary to expectation, the characters who use language least accurately have the most accurate perception of reality.

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Act 3, Scene 5
Explanation and Analysis—Dogberry as Foil:

Dogberry, with his pretentiousness and malapropisms, is a foil for the more intellectual characters in the play, such as Leonato. This use of a foil serves to highlight the cleverness of the main characters, contributes to the comedic tone of the play, and creates situational irony when Dogberry sees through Don John's schemes.

In Act 3, Scene 5, Dogberry and Verges discuss their arrest of Borachio and Conrade with Leonato. Here, Dogberry's pretentiousness and malapropisms elicit Leonato's exasperation, leading him to declare, "Neighbors, you are tedious." By juxtaposing Dogberry's bumbling nature with Leonato's stately one, the play positions Dogberry as a foil for Leonato for comedic effect.

Dogberry's role as a foil for Leonato is further accentuated in Act 4, Scene 2, when Dogberry leads a comedic faux-trial to determine the truth of Borachio and Conrade's participation in Don John's scheme. When Conrade calls him an "ass," Dogberry insists on his own authority: "Dost thou not suspect my place? Dost thou not suspect my years?" Like Leonato, who is the governor of Messina, Dogberry wields authority in his own social circle. 

Despite Dogberry's seeming lack of wit, it is ultimately he who uncovers the truth of Hero's innocence, whereas characters like Leonato and Claudio fall prey to Don John's deceit. This is an example of situational irony: the character who seems the least intellectual in the play—and who appears to have the least skillful grasp of language—is unexpectedly the only one who manages to see what's really going on. 

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Act 4, Scene 1
Explanation and Analysis—Hercules :

Throughout the play, Benedick and Beatrice's allusions to Hercules, a hero in classical mythology known for his strength, track the shift in their relationship. In particular, these allusions to Hercules reveal the gradual change in Benedick's feelings toward Beatrice. 

In Act 2, Scene 1, Benedick suggests that he does not want to be like Hercules because Beatrice would tyrannize him despite his strength: "She would have made Hercules have turned spit, yea, and have cleft his club to make the fire, too," he says, suggesting that Hercules would, in this scenario, cook for Beatrice.

In Act 3, Scene 3, after the two have fallen in love, Beatrice positions Hercules as the ideal man and challenges Benedick to rise to his example, lamenting that "he is now as valiant as Hercules that only tells a lie and swears it." In other words, a man of genuine Herculean caliber would prove the love he swears to have for Beatrice by killing Claudio to avenge her cousin. Now smitten with Beatrice, Benedick agrees to kill his friend—and thus rises to the challenge of becoming like Hercules to prove his love. In doing so, he ironically proves his earlier statement true: he's now willing to do anything for her, it seems, just as Hercules would be willing to cook for her instead of going about his normal activities as a buff hero.

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Act 4, Scene 2
Explanation and Analysis—Dogberry as Foil:

Dogberry, with his pretentiousness and malapropisms, is a foil for the more intellectual characters in the play, such as Leonato. This use of a foil serves to highlight the cleverness of the main characters, contributes to the comedic tone of the play, and creates situational irony when Dogberry sees through Don John's schemes.

In Act 3, Scene 5, Dogberry and Verges discuss their arrest of Borachio and Conrade with Leonato. Here, Dogberry's pretentiousness and malapropisms elicit Leonato's exasperation, leading him to declare, "Neighbors, you are tedious." By juxtaposing Dogberry's bumbling nature with Leonato's stately one, the play positions Dogberry as a foil for Leonato for comedic effect.

Dogberry's role as a foil for Leonato is further accentuated in Act 4, Scene 2, when Dogberry leads a comedic faux-trial to determine the truth of Borachio and Conrade's participation in Don John's scheme. When Conrade calls him an "ass," Dogberry insists on his own authority: "Dost thou not suspect my place? Dost thou not suspect my years?" Like Leonato, who is the governor of Messina, Dogberry wields authority in his own social circle. 

Despite Dogberry's seeming lack of wit, it is ultimately he who uncovers the truth of Hero's innocence, whereas characters like Leonato and Claudio fall prey to Don John's deceit. This is an example of situational irony: the character who seems the least intellectual in the play—and who appears to have the least skillful grasp of language—is unexpectedly the only one who manages to see what's really going on. 

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