Michael Macrone
Articles & Essays

Copyright © 1989 by Michael Macrone.

Sour Nothings

Seeing and Being Seen in Shakespeare’s Much Ado

Much Ado about Nothing is not, perhaps, one of the most immediately attractive or satisfying of Shakespeare’s comedies. None, indeed, contains more moments of striking verbal brilliance, or carries on with greater assurance the game of polished and slightly heartless repartee which often seems to constitute the main business of life in Messina. To pass, however, from an appreciation of these epigrammatic felicities to more direct considerations of the persons who utter them and the situations which inspire them may be to risk a certain disenchantment.
— Derek A. Traversi[1]

While many agree with Derek Traversi that Shakespeare’s Much Ado about Nothing is one of the three “great comedies,” many also agree that there is something disappointing about the play, and that, in the words of one of my colleagues, “it’s just not very funny.” When one practicing producer complained in the late 1940s that the plot “reeks to heaven of unsavoriness,”[2] he was certainly speaking for others in the business and in the audiences. Much in the manner of Measure for Measure, Much Ado goes sour in a way not fully redeemed in the resolution, even though, according to its genre, it promises successful marriage and the recession of misrule. Something about this ending, including the unusual concluding dance, does not follow from the rest of the play. Like the recalcitrance of Jacques or the lingering specter of Malvolio’s revenge, Much Ado’s last dance appears as a curious afterthought, with an equally minor if opposite effect. Few are terribly bothered by the sour notes of the other “great comedies”; the total effect of Much Ado is certainly more ambiguous.

In contrast, I have always found Much Ado particularly satisfying, in part for the very reasons others find it disturbing or grim. I am no different from anyone in finding Beatrice and Benedick, and of course Dogberry, irresistible. But I am also moved by a certain beauty which resides in the structure of the play, by the way the action and the discourse unfold so neatly while undoing themselves so completely. In its unfolding, Much Ado presents a critique not only of the reigning conventions of the Messinian social order, but also of its own possibilities as a comedy.

In the process of undoing while simultaneously unfolding itself, the play explicitly criticizes both naïve over-dependence on manifestations and report, and paranoid insistence on “legalistic” standards of proof. In order to understand how Shakespeare’s critique operates, it is necessary (1) to specify the “extra-literary” discourses against which this critique takes shape—i.e., courtly and legal discourses; (2) to put in context Shakespeare’s representation of slander as a medium of material and physical injury; and (3) to demonstrate that what seems to be a flattened or “allegorized” representation of agency in the play is actually consistent with contemporary conceptions of slander’s “psychological” effects. In the process, I hope to at least suggest ways in which the play questions its own conventions.

1. Nothings & Notings

What is the “nothing” of Much Ado about Nothing which has so fascinated the critics? The title’s euphonious ambiguity has proved hard to resist, both as a peg on which to hang thematic readings, and as an opportunity to join in the game of “fill in the blank.”[3] It is clearly not enough to identify this or that particular illusion as a referent for the title; the play invites one to consider the “nothing” at the foundation of its very structure. Because the title imitates itself in frustrating referentiality, we fill the void with elaborate nothings: networks, not things; dispositions, not manifestations.

Thus, as I see it, “nothing” has much to do with effects: with the effects of absence. At the most general level, characters in the play feel most deeply the effects of the “nothing” which is that which is not what it seems to be. In this sense, “nothing” is not pure absence: it is a qualified absence; that is, not vacancy, but rather a gap within a particular system of relations between things; the absence of identity between expectation or belief on the one side, and reality on the other. “Is she not a modest young lady?” Claudio inquires of Benedick (I.i.153).[4] Hero’s modesty is nothing if it belies Claudio’s estimation; Claudio’s estimation is nothing if it mis-rates Hero’s modesty. Both estimation and actuality may both turn out to be “nothings.” Such nothings seem particularly threatening because they undermine the basis on which the characters involved construct both their own self-images and their relations to others.

“Nothing” is thus a rupture in the sign-system by which characters in the play reveal and interpret intentions. “Nothing” is a failure of the conventional relations maintained between, on the one side, signs, tokens, appearances, opinion and report, and, on the other, the world of actualities. As such, “nothing” exposes the arbitrariness of relations upon which a certain kind of “evidence” is built. If blushing, for example, is conventionally taken as “evidence” of modesty, then when modesty is absent in the presence of blushing, the sign system fails. Much Ado entertains numerous sorts of apparent or actual collapse in signifying relations, to the end not of lamenting the arbitrariness of such relations, but of exposing the danger in staking one’s belief on conventional codes of “evidence.”

To speak rather generally, what is wrong with the way the characters in Much Ado go about their business is that they invest too much power in manifestations to reveal “truths.” “True love” becomes an epistemological, even a juridical, issue: appearance and report are, in complex ways, accepted as the primary evidence by which one may know other people and their intentions. Not only report, but appearances as well, may “lie.” If they lie, they are “nothing.” But whether appearances lie has as much to do with one’s assumptions about the truth of appearances as with the way appearances are disposed. Thus, such “nothings” have much to do with “noting,” presumably a homonym of “nothing” in Elizabethan speech[5]—a fact which Shakespeare does not neglect to exploit.

The first time the verb “note” appears in the play, Benedick remarks upon it with witty ambiguity:

Claud. Benedick, didst thou note the daughter of Signior Leonato? Bene. I noted her not, but I looked on her. Claud. Is she not a modest young lady? Bene. Do you question me as an honest man should do, for my simple and true judgement, or would you have me speak after my custom, as being a professed tyrant to their sex? (I.i.150–57)

Benedick amplifies and calls attention to the intention implicit in Claudio’s question: to note is first of all to regard with interest. Benedick’s jibe further implies that “to note” is “to evaluate,” or even “to esteem.” When Claudio ignores the jibe, Benedick feels compelled to repeat and expand upon his point: Claudio’s “noting” is really a sort of interrogation, an act of reading appearances from a certain disposition. Benedick acknowledges that noting or evaluation is bound up in role, in one’s posture within a network of social interactions.

Compare this instance of the word “note” with the Friar’s use of “noting” in the awful aftermath of Hero’s public humiliation:

Friar. Hear me a little; For I have only been silent so long, And given way unto this course of fortune, By noting of the lady. I have mark'd A thousand blushing apparitions To start into her face, a thousand innocent shames In angel whiteness beat away those blushes, And in her eye there hath appeared a fire To burn the errors that these princes hold Against her maiden truth. Call me a fool; Trust not my reading nor my observations, Which with experimental seal doth warrant The tenor of my book; trust not my age, My reverence, calling, nor divinity, If this sweet lady lie not guiltless here Under some biting error. (IV.i.155–70)

By “noting” the Friar initially seems to mean simply “attending to” or “caring for,” but his subsequent discourse draws out the sense of “marking”—essentially the sort of interested reading of appearances Benedick refers to in I.i. That the Friar feels compelled to defend his reading of the “apparitions” acknowledges the conflicted nature of “noting.”

Once again, Hero is the object of remark, the object of interpretation. Earlier in the scene, Claudio had denounced Hero’s “apparitions” as nothing—“She’s but the sign and semblance of her honour./ Behold how like a maid she blushes here!/ O, what authority and show of truth/ Can cunning sin cover itself withal!” (IV.i.32–5). Behind the nothing that is Hero’s honor—and above all her giving out to be honorable, her simulation of honor—Claudio constructs the something of her cunning sin. The Friar, on the other hand, is disposed to trust the evidence of his eyes; he acts here to correctly find the facts, to faithfully match appearances with actuality, and he stakes the full extent of his authority upon his testimony to those facts. Conversely, it is precisely his “reverence, calling [and] divinity” which he invokes to guarantee his facts against empirical evidence (”experimental seal”).

The Friar proceeds in this scene as an attorney for the defense, but also, in the absence of any competent substitute, as jury. The transformation, or degeneration, of the wedding scene into a courtroom drama will be of significance when we consider in detail questions of the evidentiary standards in force in the play. The Friar’s authority in pleading for Hero will also be implicitly addressed in our discussion of testimony and of “honor” (section 7, below). But for now I wish to focus on the issue of real or perceived simulation.

2. Tokens of Esteem

To return to a central point: it is impossible for appearances in themselves to “lie.” It is only within a discursive network of signs and referents, appearances and essences, which produces one’s disposition toward appearances as signifiers, that appearance becomes subject to rules of signification, and therefore to “veridical” standards.[6] Only when one is led to assume—by cultural habits or more local practices—that specific manifestations or “tokens” naturally indicate specific actualities or essences, can the signifiers of appearance signify “truly.” Only because Hero’s manifest appearance and demeanor would conventionally be read as tokens of her essential modesty can Claudio righteously denounce her as “but the sign and semblance of her honor” (IV.i.32), when he believes her modesty a sham. Even as he asserts the difference between appearance and reality, however, he grounds that distinction in a naive essentializing of the signifier “honor.” Honor is actually less something material or manifest than a categorical placeholder for reputed and/ or anticipated behavior. As we shall see in section 7, honor was at this period in England very much bound up in one’s reputation for both truthfulness and chastity.

Claudio is not alone in the play in cleaving too closely to what he calls the “evidence to witness” essential truths—evidence which is absorbed through both the eye and the ear, in the form of tokens and reports. (It is supremely ironic that only the friar, whose technique of reading appearances is highly conventional, is able to correctly interpret the “witness” of Hero’s appearance at the scene of her denunciation.) Because they actively or passively misprise evidence, characters are trapped both by themselves and others in awkward situations. Whether due to credulousness or overconfident canniness, misreading is embedded in the structure of the Messinian court; those who understand this fact are able to manipulate the situation to their own ends—for better or for worse.

Power in the play resides in the ability to manipulate expectations based on the discursive codes of appearance and report. This power is the central topic of the age’s most famous guidebook to the ideology and operations of the Italian court: Baldassare Castiglione’s The Book of the Courtier.[7] Although there is no clear line of “influence” from this book to Shakespeare’s court comedies,[8] the courtly-erotic dynamics which Castiglione represents are strikingly manifest in Much Ado. Furthermore, Castiglione’s dialogues enjoyed such popularity in England and elsewhere that it would have been difficult to conceive courtly intrigue—especially if borrowed from Italian sources—without at least indirect reference to the courtly selfhood Castiglione promoted.

Throughout Book III, which is concerned with the construction of the ideal donna di palazzo, the interlocutors reflect again and again a social sphere in which both men and women experience erotic affect in response to what are called, in the Hoby translation, “tokens.”[9] In this world, however, such “tokens”—a word often used here and in Shakespeare to name erotic signs[10]—are suspect because they are subject to frequent and subtle manipulation. Openly signaling one’s desire is invitation to disaster—not only because it surrenders control to the one who receives the signal (who gains, but need not render, access to intentions), but also because it provokes gossip and malicious report, which themselves give over into the hands of gossipers one’s control of reputation and love’s career. These problems are summarized by the chief architect of the courtly woman, Lord Julian:

Sir Frederick said: Teach you her then what are the most certaine and surest tokens to discerne false love from true, and what tryall she shall thinke sufficient to content her selfe withall, to be out of doubt of the love shewed her.

The Lord Julian answered smiling: That wote not I, because men bee now a daies so craftie, that they make infinite false sembla[n]ts, and sometime weepe, when they have in deede a greater lust to laugh…. I would say that she shoulde not be light of credence that she is beloved: nor bee like unto some, that not onely make [not] wise they understande him not that co[m]muneth with them of love, be it never so farre of, but also at first word accept all the prayses that be given them…. (237)

Where one is in danger of betraying himself through what Lord Cesar calls “a paire of eyes that talke” (232),[11] one is himself at greater danger of being betrayed by such “false semblants” as are epitomized in crafty and solicitous discourse. Such discourse, when the speaker intends to woo, is by its nature ambiguous and duplicitous, since its bearer needs an “innocent meaning” to fall back on if rebuked.[12] It is discrete for a woman, instructs Julian, when approached to “make wise not to understand him, and … draw his wordes to another sense, seeking alwaies … to stray from that purpose” (237). If this defense against ambiguous speech—speech potentially duplicitous in intention because ambiguous in form—is a means of self-protection, the defense itself trades in ambiguity and duplicity. The defense against dissembling is more dissembling; the situation soon becomes such that one begins to read all signs as ambiguous. One begins second-guessing all intentions; one, that is, becomes a paranoid.

We are firmly implanted in the somewhat petty world of a Polonius, and in the quotidian actualities of a Messina. The “merry war” between Beatrice and Benedick is not only patently defensive, but fundamentally constituted by what Benedick will call “fright[ing] the word out of his right sense” (V.ii.52). To maximize and exploit ambiguity and double-entendre is both to defend against the intentions driving discourse, and to exacerbate a context in which report has less and less probability of meaning what it says. Benedick, fresh from his “conversion,” unintentionally reveals the comic side of this dynamic when, abused in the usual fashion by Beatrice, he notes that “there’s a double meaning in that” (II.iii.249). Claudio makes merry of Dogberry’s dilatory malapropism as “one meaning well suited” (V.i.220), but he does so at the moment Dogberry exposes Claudio’s own hoodwinking by duplicitous tokens, “suited” to the purposes of one who means him harm.[13]

In the rude discourse of Dogberry’s comrades, the “vile thief” they seek is indeed “one Deformed”—Borachio’s “fashion” (III.iii.121, 123; V.i.302). Meanings, as well as persons, may be “suited” in the fashion of the hour, or fashioned to the deformed intentions of the dissembler. Curiously, Don John most clearly articulates Shakespeare’s larger critique when he refuses to “fashion a carriage to rob love from any,”[14] and claims that “though I cannot be said to be a flattering honest man, it must not be denied but I am a plain-dealing villain” (I.iii.27–30). We need not know that John will turn out to be a flattering villain to recognize that these self-justifications are intended by Shakespeare less to win our sympathy than to establish John as an outsider to the system. And as an outsider, he is better able to observe and manipulate appearances, to “suit” them to the requisite fashion, and to fashion the interpretations of the play’s flattering honest men.

When Beatrice accuses Benedick of fickleness, she opines that “he wears his faith but as the fashion of his hat” (I.i.68–9). Antonio plays the theme more strenuously when he vilifies Claudio and Pedro as “fashion-monging boys,/ That lie, and cog, and flout, deprave, and slander,/ Go anticly, and show outward hideousness,/ And speak off half a dozen dang'rous words” (V.i.94–7). Taunting Benedick for his new, love-sick fashionableness, Pedro insinuates that he’s taken a “fancy” to “strange disguises” (III.ii.29–30); “Unless he have a fancy to this foolery, as it appears he hath, he is no fool for fancy, as you [Claudio] would have it appear he is” (ll. 34–6). Claudio’s rejoinder is telling: “If he be not in love with some woman, there is no believing old signs” (ll. 37–8). While Claudio and Pedro mock the ways “fancy” is fashioned into signs of fancy, they only pretend to undercut the “old signs” which will seem disastrously to fail them at the end of the scene. Placed before Don John’s spectacle, they lose faith in Hero’s signs of honesty, falling prey to the fashioned signs of her unchastity.

Thus fashion is indexed throughout the play to a dangerous instability both of faith and of signs, with a shaping of appearances to mask an emptiness within, an emptiness of appearance’s referent. Fashion thus becomes a figure for the discursive code of appearances, and for the power of signs to mask “nothing,” the empty referent, the failure of signification.

Sir Thomas Elyot speaks for a common precept of the day when he says, in The Book named the Governor, that because “we be men,” “we know nothing but by outward significations.”[15] Elyot’s unintended ambiguity, hinging how one takes “nothing,” is felicitous. Given the problems in the operation of reference—and the dangers implicit in esteeming appearances and report to unambiguously indicate actual conditions—more specific effects take form. In an environment where one is at least implicitly suspicious of the interests which lie behind and manipulate direct discourse, indirect, or mediated, discourse comes to marshal a certain authority. If one believes himself protected from the direct intentions of the author of the speech, one is more willing to lend that speech credence. The danger habitually ignored in Messina is that the mediator himself has less than honest motives for reporting others’ speech, or that, more grievously, the report itself is a fabrication, is false report.

Beatrice, duped by Hero and Ursula, confesses that while “others say [Benedick] dost deserve … I/ Believe it better than reportingly” (III.i.115–6). In Castiglione’s Book of the Courtier, Count Lewis examines love’s report in a passage that could rival any summary of the “Beatrice-Benedick” plot of Much Ado :

     I have also seene a most fervent love spring in the heart of a woman, towarde one that seemed at the first not to beare him the least affection in the worlde, onely for that she heard say, that the opinion of many was, that they loved together. And the cause of this (I believe) was that so generall a judgement seemed a sufficient witnesse, that he was worthie of her love. And it seemed (in a manner) that report brought the ambassade on the lovers behalfe much more truer and worthier to be believed, than he himselfe could have done with letters or wordes, or any other person for him: therefore sometime this common voice not onely hurteth not, but farthereth a mans purpose.
     The Lord Julian answered: Loves that have reporte for their messenger, are verie perillous to make a man pointed to with a finger. (p. 248)

Actually, it takes something less than a “common voice” to win the characters in Much Ado over to hearsay. Almost anyone of any standing—persons “of name,” as the messenger calls them in I.i—is ready to be believed. When Pedro plots “act two” of his production for the benefit of Beatrice and Benedick, he fully expects hearsay to breed in Beatrice and Benedick an “opinion” of the other’s desire, but he never does get the “dumb-show” he gleefully anticipates (II.iii.207–10). Nevertheless, Pedro recognizes something in the structure of hearsay, especially when heard in hiding, which will allow him to circumvent Benedick’s “wit and his queasy stomach” to “practice on” him in service of desire (II.i.360–2).

Superficially, the amateur players achieve their end by shaming both Beatrice and Benedick while each of these two is in a position which prohibits their defense and feeds on their instinctive desire to hear themselves spoken of. In effect, both Benedick and Beatrice are put in a passive position before overheard report, a position from which they effortlessly fall into others’ dramas, others’ scripts. It is the susceptibility of desire to the shaping of report which Hero identifies when she proclaims, “Of this matter/ is little Cupid’s crafty arrow made,/ That only wounds by hearsay” (III.i.21–3).

Hero, ironically, will ultimately suffer from hearsay’s counter-swipe. The essential passivity before mediated language—the relaxing of one’s defenses against interested direct discourse—recapitulated again and again in Much Ado is as much an invitation to violence as to desire. “And she is dead,” Antonio reports falsely of Hero, “slander'd to death by villains” (V.i.88). Hero’s passivity,[16] very much a sign of her “modesty,” leaves her the play’s perfect victim. While some take pride in the capacity of their language to wound,[17] “wit” becomes a means of “killing off” sexual anxieties, and false report and slander become the means par excellence of inflicting harm.

This dangerous state of affairs is characterized by passivity before hearsay, vulnerability to report false or true. A false sense of security seems built in to the position of overhearing—especially overhearing talk of oneself while one is hidden (Beatrice in III.i, Benedick in II.iii) or in disguise (Benedick in II.i, Claudio later in the same scene). Leonato, Pedro and Claudio instinctively recognize this fact, and exploit it to the fullest in their “sport” with Benedick by airing any doubts about their own report and agreeing, in their feigned disinterestedness, that doubts are groundless:

Leon. By my troth, my lord, I cannot tell what to think of it, but that [Beatrice] loves [Benedick] with an enraged affection, it is past the infinite of thought. Pedro. Maybe she doth but counterfeit. Claud. Faith, like enough. Leon. O God! Counterfeit? There was never counterfeit of passion came so near the life of passion as she discovers it. (II.iii.100–7)

In another way, Hero and Ursula undermine Beatrice’s prospective suspicion by formulating in advance a plausible reason why Benedick might not act out his role:

Urs. Yet tell her of it [Benedick’s passion]; hear what she will say. Hero. No; rather I will go to Benedick And counsel him to fight against his passion; And truly I'll devise some honest slanders To stain my cousin with: one doth not know How much an ill word may empoison liking. (III.i.81–6)

Where the men undermine Benedick’s fragile faith in the sincerity of Beatrice’s slanders past (inverting the former distinction of the counterfeit and the sincere), the women preempt Beatrice’s faith in the sincerity of Benedick’s slanders future (which will “actually” be the counterfeits Benedick now thinks Beatrice’s slanders have been).

The precipitateness with which the new lovers fall into their respective “traps”—or scripts—has been interpreted both as a sign that heretofore their antipathy was merely a thin mask, and as another signal to the audience that Messina is not to be taken as a “psychologically realistic” locus.[18] I think the former comes closer to at least a partial explanation of the function of these scenes; but I would further suggest that Shakespeare is leveling a fairly explicit critique at naïve blindness to the interestedness of indirect discourses. This naïveté seems to be characterized by the play as a defensive overcompensation for latent social paranoias concerning the fragility of pledges, testimony, oaths, protestations of love, and other “performative” speech acts—of which slander is the primary negative example.[19]

3. Mediation and Paranoia

Perhaps the most remarkable feature of Much Ado is that the primary “action” is speech—moreover, indirect and often garbled speech. And nearly every action—speech-act or otherwise—is accomplished through a mediator or agent—porte-parole or vicarious stand-in. Pedro woos Hero for Claudio; Pedro, Claudio and Leonato rehearse for the hidden Benedick Hero’s “report” of Beatrice’s love; Hero likewise rehearses for the hidden Beatrice Pedro’s and Claudio’s “report” of Benedick’s love; Borachio, by staging the window-trick for Claudio and Pedro, mediates John’s violence against the two and, indirectly, against Leonato’s household; the watch act as Dogberry’s agent in apprehending John’s employee Borachio; Dogberry himself is the agent of Leonato’s justice, or rather of the perversion of his justice; Leonato briefly inserts himself into the marriage ceremony as Claudio’s spokesperson; and so on.

Every notable event in the plot proceeds from the operations of mediated agency, operations which dominate Messinian social exchange. The most crucial mediations in the play are mediations in courtship—courtship by third parties. Neither the quasi-violent “wit-war” between Beatrice and Benedick, nor the idealizing, appearance-based detachment of Claudio from Hero—which is only latently violent—is in any way effective as courtship. The four lovers may, in their very different ways, prolong and even heighten desire in their direct encounters (such as they are), but none of them independently prosecutes courtship, at least not until act IV. Without mediators, “nothing” indeed, except deferral, would come of witty jibes or courtly pining.

Just as the first scene concludes with Don Pedro’s “agreement” (which is more like insistence) to speak Claudio’s words of love in Hero’s ear, Antonio occupies I.ii reporting—falsely, of course—that Pedro will woo Hero for himself. Antonio had this news of “a good sharp fellow”[20]—so Leonato gets the news at seemingly reliable third-hand. Whether this fellow, or Antonio, or both, are the source of distortion, we cannot be sure. Nor is knowing exactly how the report became falsified a concern; certainly we are meant to recognize that distortion, active or passive, is inherent to report itself—and this mystification of cause, a matter of mirth at present, will be shown to have dangerous consequences, which it is the matter of the play to bring to conclusion.

In case we hadn't got the point of this scene, Shakespeare reiterates it in the very next: Borachio enters the company of Don John and Conrade with “intelligence of an intended marriage” (I.iii.42); but once again, the spycraft is flawed. Borachio’s report is somewhat closer to truth, but in one very important detail, he misstates: “that the Prince [shall] woo Hero for himself, and having obtained her, give her to Claudio” (ll. 58–60). Borachio reads mediated agency as an economic exchange, by which Pedro, a directly interested party, renders Claudio his debtor. And even though Borachio errs in fact, he anticipates what will be Claudio’s own conclusion once John delivers to him half of Borachio’s half-truth.[21] Nor can the audience be sure what has actually transpired between Pedro and Hero; their discourse is not represented. Pedro has seemingly adopted his role with disinterest—yet he is still very much indebting his “student” in love (the pedagogical relation is always interested); and furthermore, there is something unsettling about Don John’s easy adoption of the role of agent—the professor of love who has never married could not have learned his craft well without some vicarious investment.[22]

This underlying uneasiness finds voice in Claudio, after he has naively swallowed Don John’s malicious report:

Claud. ’Tis certain so; the Prince woos for himself. 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. This is an accident of hourly proof, Which I mistrusted not. Farewell, therefore, Hero! (II.i.162–70)

Notably, Claudio absolves Pedro, whom he now assumes guilty of betrayal—the same sort of betrayal, though under different circumstances and to a different degree, which will drive him to his despicable performance at the wedding. Claudio blames, rather, two abstract, structural principles—two laws—to wit: disinterested agency in matters of love is impossible; and the “witch” beauty falsifies all faith with corrupting charms. Let me take each of his complaints separately:

(1) Agents are not to be trusted because, at least in matters of alliance, the claims of one’s own desires are sovereign. Claudio has actually intuited an important principle of the social order represented in Much Ado. Nevertheless, it is a principle he shall observe in the breach—perhaps because he has yet to fully acknowledge Don John’s own agency in bearing him the report he now believes true.

Lawrence Stone deduces from the evidence of the many contemporary English “Letters of Advice to a Son” that “the basic assumption” at work among members of the landed classes “is that no one is to be trusted, since anyone and everyone—wife, servants, children, friends, neighbors, or patrons—are only kept loyal by self-interest, and may, therefore, at any moment turn out to be enemies.”[23] If Stone is correct, then Claudio’s instinctive reaction to Pedro’s seeming betrayal is to fall back on the paranoid orthodoxy of the day. Such orthodoxy turns up elsewhere in Shakespeare, for example in the mouths of Laertes and Polonius.

(2) Claudio, in damning beauty’s witchcraft, indirectly absolves himself of falling for Hero at the very moment he absolves Pedro. It may seem quite natural for Claudio to favor a familiar in the male regime of war over an object of sudden desire and calculated courtship, with whom he has yet to speak a word in the play. Yet implicit in his rejection of female beauty is a deep anxiety about his own conventionalized and callow intentions regarding Hero, whom he embraces with a seeming joy that outstrips speech only after she is restored to him.

The formation of these intentions is staked on an inflated estimation of appearances; Claudio simultaneously overvalues and damns appearances in his outburst. Claudio’s discourse with Benedick, and later with Pedro, in which he formulates aloud—as if only understanding what he intends in the formulation—his “soft and delicate desires” (I.i.283) is notable both for its privileging of reputation and appearance, and for its curiously mentalistic conception of desire. After seeking Benedick’s assurance as to Hero’s modesty (”Is she not a modest young lady?”—l. 153) and revealing his concern for her reliability, Claudio reels off a few breathless and hackneyed pledges of esteem: “Can the world buy such a jewel?” and, revealingly, “In mine eye, she is the sweetest lady that ever I looked on” (ll. 168, 174–5). The eye that esteems so has been acquired in exchange for his “soldier’s eye,” which, as Claudio tells Pedro, “lik'd, but had a rougher task in hand/ Than to drive liking to the name of love” (ll. 278–80). This statement reveals more than shallowness and calculation; it reveals a notion of selfhood as the internal regulation of the effects of appearances.

Claudio conceives himself as a structure of “rooms” previously occupied by “war-thoughts,” but now emptied out—“vacant”—and subject to the possession of “soft and delicate desires” which “throng” there and “prompt” Claudio “how fair young Hero is” (ll. 281–4). Where once Claudio could keep control over thronging, unincorporated desires which threatened to penetrate him through the eye, he now acknowledges his passive vulnerability. That there is something in this concept of desire to be anxious about will not fully emerge until act IV, where it emerges with a vengeance.

“Let every eye negotiate for itself”: Claudio’s pompous exhortation in face of frustrated intentions rejects mediation, but preserves the centrality of the eye. His more shocking outburst at the wedding picks up the theme:

Claud. O Hero! What a Hero hadst thou been, If half thy outward graces had been plac'd About thy thoughts and counsels of thy heart! But fare thee well, most foul, most fair! Farewell, Thou pure impiety and impious purity! For thee I'll lock up all the gates of love, And on my eyelids shall conjecture hang, To turn all beauty into thoughts of harm, And never shall it more be gracious. (IV.i.100–8)

Although the testimony of appearances is rejected as false mediation between perceiver and the actuality of the perceived, Claudio’s rejection is only apparent. He preserves the eye as the organ of knowledge, and pledges merely to negate or invert appearance—and, in effect, femininity[24]—rather than question the means of his knowledge. While preserving the privilege of the eye within an essentially veridical notion of desire, Claudio merely recapitulates and codifies, with his pledge to paranoia, precisely what he has already done—not only in the “beauty is a witch speech” in II.i, but at the scene of the window-trick, at the prompting of Don John. For Claudio to misread programmatically would be new only insofar as it is by design, not insofar as it is misreading.

Claudio’s mode of knowledge is revealed to us and finally to himself as paranoid, excessively “legalistic,” and self-defeating. If one requires “evidence” for others’ true intentions and good faith, one is prey not only to others’ manipulations of manifestations, but also to one’s own hidden anxieties and desires, which shape manifest evidence in their own image. And, finally, because the deepest, most personal, “private,” “spiritual” facts can only be testified to by the person who experiences them, when one is led to doubt that person’s credibility, all evidence is nullified. There can never be enough “evidence” to satisfy one’s anxieties about others’ intentions and feelings. But if one insists on evidence, one becomes slander’s fool, playing into the hands of those—the Don Johns and the Iagos—who understand others’ deep desires for more evidence to confirm their anxieties. 

4. Slander and Comic Structure

The relevance, or lack thereof, of the “Hero-Claudio” plot borrowed from the sources, to the “Beatrice-Benedick” plot presumably of Shakespeare’s own invention,[25] has been a frequent subject of critical comment. In the terms of this essay, both “plots” concern the danger of esteeming something to be what it actually is not. This concern entirely comprises the “Hero-Claudio plot.” While the dynamic is obviously more complex, Beatrice’s and Benedick’s manipulation by all the other court characters similarly hinges on the incompatibility of representation and reality. Such incompatibility allows for both defensive devaluation and inflationary overvaluation, both of which seem central to the generation of desire, as well as to its deferral or defeat.

At a more specific level, each plot takes up, in a different way, slanderous discourse. Beatrice snubs the disguised Benedick as one whose only gift “is in devising impossible slanders” (II.i.128); Borachio consummates Don John’s “slander” with his “villainy” (III.iii.153). When Hero, to the end of shaming Beatrice into higher regard for Benedick, pretends to devise a method of protecting Benedick from Beatrice’s certain scorn, her solution is to “devise some honest slanders/ To stain my cousin with: one doth not know/ How much an ill word may empoison liking” (III.i.84–6). The irony implicit in this rhetorical remark is almost cruel, at least in retrospect: Hero will soon know full well the potency of the poison.

But whether taken at face value or in larger dramatic terms, Hero’s assertion highlights the insecurity of one’s position within Messinian court society—where the realms of factuality, status, esteem and desire are vulnerable to distortion by speech, and a fortiori by slander. A rare and useful treatise on the topic, the anonymous A Plaine description of the Auncient Petigree of Dame Slaunder ... (1573),[26] offers some insight into the ways Elizabethans imagined slander’s agency and their own vulnerability, at a time when, as we shall see, slander was becoming more and more a matter for legal action and legal redress.

The author of this treatise accords slander full-scale allegorical treatment, complete with genealogy (we find, for example, that “Lady flattery” is “kinswoman [and] cosen germain to Dame sclaunder”[27]). The function of the allegory per se is complex; while it complements the author’s generic representation of divine agency—so that the psychomachia can be properly staged—allegorization would also seem to complicate rather than simplify the question of agency. Let me illustrate this point by citing a passage that is otherwise relevant to the issues at hand:

[A]lmost there is no creature, or but very few or so auncient, or noble of stomacke, though he be closed in a wall of Adamant stone, if he give place, and allowe Dame sclaunder, hee will be overcome also with flattery: For sclaunder undermindeth and casteth downe the foundation of true iudgme[n]t in the outward parts, and within, trayterous confederate with their enemies, helpeth them when they breake in and receiue them, and open the gates, and so endeuor themselues that Madame Sclaunder may make the hearer of the tale to be her servant. (C.4v- 5)

Although slander is represented here in fairly pure allegorical terms, the author insists on the collusion between slander and “her” victim: the agency is neither fully external nor fully internal to the “creature” who is at once besieged and solicitous. The will of man, in these terms, corrupt from within, invites the destruction by an unincorporated agency of its restraints and controls. Far from depriving these credulous victims of “motivation,” the author resorts to allegory, only to render an evil felt in the individual yet also excessive to him. On the one hand,

The traytors … delight to heare newes, naturally giuen to some mens appetites, and weary of all things present, delight to have such things, as he imagineth in his owne mind, for it happeneth (I wot not how) that all men stand much in their own conceit and be soone intised with suspicion…. (C.5)

In other words, slander is merely the actualization of latent suspicions and desires, desires which arise primarily out of envy and jealousy. On the other hand, while the beginning of the slanderer’s craft

commeth of Enuy, wauering betweene hope and feare, the ende of it is alwayes miserable, outragious, tragical, and fearfull, so that the very labour of this ringleader, is very painfull, and much busied, although it seemeth not so. For he must haue much craft and singuler conueyance of nature, and use such diligence, as must be most wariest, and neuer weary: for Dame sclau[n]der doeth no harme … unlesse she rehearse such thinges, which at the first sight seeme to be true, or else (as you know) she could not ouercome trueth, which in deede is very Lady and deliuerer (at the last) of all thinges, and unlesse shee could deceaue the hearer with a full & probable tale at the first hearing. (C.1v-2)

Just as the prose here disappoints our expectations of coherence, so too does the characterization of the precise status of slander’s agency. But at the least we can safely say that the author of this argument, and presumably its readers, are content with a flexible concept of agency in general; and we may add that the operations of slander always presuppose vicious desires on the parts of both purveyor and consumer.

The author posits a world of concealed desires to stain others or believe them stained. He even withholds his name, according to the printer John Harrison, to “auoyde the suspicion of vayne glorie” (A.5v). This protest (mock or real) beautifully and economically reproduces the paranoia surrounding one’s reputation—one’s “reading” by others—that makes slander so horrible to begin with. The paranoid posits a world in which one’s actions and appearance, and others’ reports (true or false) about oneself, are continually subject to interpretation and misinterpretation. The paranoid suspects that others are colluding in misreading the signs that concern him, and are maliciously contriving his fall from station or grace. Referring to the slanderer as “Capten” of the “Interlude,” of the staging of malicious machinations, the author imagines slander as

an accusation made for hatred, unknowen to him that is accused, wherein the accuser is beleeued, and hee that is accused is not called to giue answer, or to denye any thing, and this definition standeth on three persons, euen like as matters of Comedies doe, that is, by the Accuser, and by him that is accused, and by the bearer of the accusement…. (B.7v)

Such a triangular or mediated disposition of “players” strikes the author as inherent or natural to comedy. To say that slander replicates this structure is as much to say that comedy replicates the structure of slander. If that is going too far, we may assert at least this much: that the action of comedy, according to this model, depends on one party’s mediation between a second and a third, such that the second party is brought act upon a false supposition regarding and unbeknownst to the third. It would not be very difficult to outline the complicated networks of mediated action which determine the plots of Shakespeare’s comedies. To the extent that Much Ado thematizes both slander and mediation, it is the quintessential Shakespearean comedy. And it is perhaps the fact that triangular structures are openly questioned by the play—in a manner that resists neat resolution—that it has left audiences so ill at ease. Much Ado, in a rather complex way, has its cake and eats it too: generically a comedy, it is also a criticism of comedy, whose symptoms are a mediated violence one at once absorbs and, if successful, sublimates.

The triangulation described by the author of Dame Slaunder functions in this way: the slanderer, “Capten of this Interlude,” “priuily and by stealth pursueth and accuseth the absent,” and in doing so assumes an interested relationship to the slandered party—the “stent of unrighteousness” is too much “parcialitie.” Dissimulating his interest or intent under the guise of concern for the hearer, the slanderer “getteth the hearer of his complaynte wholly unto him, hee getteth his audience before, and stoppeth his eares, and filleth them with sclaunder against the defendant shall come to make answere” (B.7v-8). This sort of predisposition of the hearer to assume the truth of the slander—and to measure all observation and even rebuttal from within the expectations produced by slanderous discourse—is conceived not only in theatrical terms (the hearer, like the audience at a play, is subject to authorial “shaping”), but furthermore in juridical terms.

In this metaphoric courtroom drama, the roles of plaintiff, defendant, and jury are filled. The author of Dame Slaunder vilifies slander as bad juridical procedure principally because the slanderer deprives the slandered of the benefit of the jury’s doubt, or “benefit and fauour” equal to the plaintiff’s (B.8). In the absence of an impartial justice, the slanderer succeeds in wholly “getting” the jury to his cause, or enlisting the hearer to his interest—a task easily accomplished, because the author assumes the hearer is in a sense already disposed to believe slander. The jury knows the “facts” before there are any “facts” to know.

5. Slander in Legal Discourse

In a society in which one’s word is only problematically one’s bond, and in which so many of the social networks are predicated on estimations and pledges, dissimulation and dissimulating language become demonized. The crowning dramatic irony of Hero’s pledge to “devise some honest slanders” is that she as yet little knows, as we do, “how much an ill word may empoison liking.”[28] If we defensively over-invest others with the authority to tell the “truth” about us and our significant others, we are vulnerable to their corruption of that authority, the telling of lies to our significant others about us.

This vulnerability has happy consequences in the case of Beatrice and Benedick, and nearly tragic consequences in the case of Claudio and Hero. But whether the consequences are happy or sad, the situation is always dangerous. The play criticizes this situation both in its articulation of narrative events, and in its underlying directedness against a paranoid, “legalistic” disposition toward the world and other human beings, and toward the establishment of an internally regulated disposition toward the world, freed from the ambiguousness of external evidentiary display.

What I mean by a “legalistic” disposition has to do with a reliance upon demonstration of two types, both characteristic of Elizabethan courts of law: (1) direct ocular evidence—such as marks, signs, and apparitions[29]—which is in no “scientific” or regulated fashion subject to determinations of relevance; and (2) the evidence of testimony, which has force with reference to its source and style—to the reliability of the witness and to its rhetorical aptness. I have remarked on the pitfalls of type (1) at great length already. Type (2) interests me now because it is intimately related to the phenomenon of slander, and thus to an extra-literary discourse of great authority in the regulation of social practices.

It is important to note that Shakespeare wrote Much Ado when actions for slander were for the first time pursued in number before common-law justices and at the king’s courts. In the first English treatise on the topic of actions for slander, John March laments

the frequency of these actions; for I may with confidence affirme, that they doe at this day bring as much Gryse to the Mill, if not more, then any one branch of the Law whatsoever. And it were to be wished … that the greatest part of them were suppressed, that words only of brangle, heate and choler, might not be so much as mentioned in those high and honorable Courts of Justice … especially when I consider, that they are used only as instruments to promote the malice, and vent the spleene of private jarres and discontents amongst men.[30]

Although March is writing in 1647, and considers his contemporaries the worst offenders in thus dishonoring the law, he correctly points out later that the number actions for slander began sharply rising during the reign of Elizabeth: “they began … to multiply in the Queenes time, as we finde in my Lord Cookes 4. book,[31] where there is no less than 17 adjudged cases ...” (8). March is convinced the number of cases continues to rise geometrically, having himself reported “no lesse then three and twenty judgments upon these Actions but from Easter Tearme in the sixteenth yeare of the King [Charles I] to Trinity Tearme in the eighteenth” (9).

March cites with obvious approval the observation of Chief Justice Wray, “that the malice of men doth more increase in these times, then in times past;[32] and as he saith, the malice of men ought to be withstood as much as may be; which I am sure the too frequent tolerating of Actions of this nature wil not effect, no more then fire can be extinguished by adding fewell unto it” (9). March was not the last to explain the rise of such actions partially in terms of the age’s “litigiousness” and of intensifying conflicts between individuals. These claims, however, are somewhat arguable; what is more clearly the case is that “private” and “spiritual” performative acts such as slander were being reconceptualized in terms of “public” legal discourse. Thus, because men grew more habituated to the idea of bringing action for damages formerly considered “spiritual” in nature, and because there was growing precedent, within limits, for doing so, slander itself was redefined and reconstructed as materially violent in nature. The “fewell” March speaks of was precisely such judicial “toleration”— the ambivalent extension of cognizance and of power into a quasi-”private,” quasi-”spiritual” realm.

Rather than assume that people of the late 16th century were for some reason more malicious than their ancestors, we ought, then, to deduce that slander was at this time reconceived as a form of damage, or of actionable injury, i.e., a tort. One consequence, to surmise, of such a reconception must have been a heightened awareness of words as physical acts, and especially of defamatory language as a medium of material violence. For Antonio to claim that Hero has been “slander'd to death by villains” is thus to speak (or dissemble) more (or less) than figuratively.[33] Another, less speculative, consequence must have been greater ambivalence toward the publication of slander. The more “public” the report—assuming it is indeed false report[34]—the better: all the easier to produce witnesses to the injury and to establish potential or actual damage.[35] Thus Dogberry’s seemingly witless eagerness to be “writ down an ass,” to publish Conrade’s calling him “coxcomb” (IV.ii.66–70, 83–4).

Cases of “sexual” slander proved sticky to common-law professionals, who labored in the early 16th century to extend their jurisdiction into an area formerly the property of the ecclesiastic courts—which they regarded with some jealousy.[36] However, upon the sharp and general rise in actions on the case of words, the professionals—especially beleaguered justices—exerted a contrary force in the name both of maintaining the strict, ancient guidelines for admissibility of actions on the case, and of discouraging the degradation of their courts into public forums for the pursuit and proliferation of “private” spite. Therefore, while the common-law justices and the justices of the King’s Bench did accept actions on the case of sexual slander, they handed down judgment only in the event of demonstrable damage or of concomitant allegations of crime.[37] Otherwise, the case lay in the exclusive jurisdiction of the ecclesiastic court and canon law. March cites Coke[38] in insisting that certain words

which concern matter meerely Spirituall, and determinable in the Ecclesiasticall Court only; as for calling of a man a Bastard, a Heretique a [sic] Scismatique, an Advowterer, a Fornicator, or for calling of a Woman a Whore or charging her with any particular act of incontinency, or the like, yet in these casese with an averrement of a particular damage, and Action will lie at the Common Law…. (98–9)

Coke took the opportunity, in reporting the case of Palmer and Thorpe (King’s Bench, 1583; 4. Co Rep, 20a-b; ER 909–11), to set forth what had emerged as the court’s consensus on the distribution of cases on words between the ecclesiastical courts and the common-law courts:

To a spiritual defamation there are three incidents: 1st, That it concern matter merely of ecclesiastical cognizance, as for calling one “heretic, adulterer, schismatic,” &c.; 2nd. That it concern matter merely spiritual: for if it relates to any thing determinable at common law, the Ecclesiastical Judge shall not have cognizance thereof; 3rd. That the party cannot sue there for damages or amends, but only for punishment of the sin, pro salute animæ. (4. Co Rep, 20a; ER 909) [italics supplied]

There are two remarks one may make upon such attempts to buttress the partitions of jurisdiction. Primarily at issue is which legal regime—canonical or common-law—is able to take proper “cognizance” of the matter represented in defamatory speech. The issue, then, is how the words may be tailored to one epistemological scheme or the other. Secondly, it is now clear that Don John’s slander of Hero—coupled with counterfeit ocular evidence—would be actionable in an English common-law court in the 1590s, if only for the reason of its ruination of Hero’s marriage. Shakespeare, like most of his contemporaries, including the legal professionals in his audience, would have been familiar with this latter fact. What is more significant is that Shakespeare extrapolates from the notion of defamatory “damage” to the hypostatization of slander as materially damaging in itself—as capable of directly inflicting pain, if not death.

In the social array represented in Much Ado, the willfully witty misreadings Beatrice and Benedick apply to each other’s meanings, while somewhat violent, produce no palpable damage—other than the spiritual kind of damage which seems integral to the perpetuation and “proof” of desire in the play. The audience seems intended to recognize, or cognize, their mutual malediction as a half-serious “spiritual” affair whose ultimate consequences would compensate for its virulence. However, Don John’s effortless manipulation of Claudio’s and Hero’s spiritual commitment functions as a sort of critique from within the play of the debased standards of communicative referentiality which are rampant at all levels of society. John’s slander, which results in what would be actionable damage, is merely a version of the false report which, only, is efficient in forcing Beatrice and Benedick to recognize each other’s desire, and thus their own desire—a situation not at all far from Lacan’s double-edged “desire of the Other.”[39]

I have aimed in this lengthy reading of the development of common-law jurisdiction over slander to highlight a shift, contemporary with Much Ado, in the way speech-acts were conceived by Elizabethans. That Shakespeare’s plot is built on slander’s entailing material damage and actual physical harm implies that he intended at least part of his audience to read the action in a legal context—to cognize the matter as a legalistic one. When the watch catch Borachio in the act of admitting his role in John’s slander, they charge him with “the most dangerous piece of lechery that ever was known in the commonwealth” (III.iii.161–2). But later, not only Dogberry, who calls the crime “flat perjury” and “flat burglary” (IV.ii.39, 47), but also the sexton, unquestioningly takes the offense to be within the jurisdiction of the local courts. The representatives of Leonato’s law charge themselves with the collection of “evidence” which will both indict John and ultimately reverse the damage he causes.

The legal discourses which are embedded in the play bring to the fore both contemporary dispositions toward defamatory speech and more general concerns for the “proof” of others’ actions and intentions. The law crosses the realm of social exchanges at the point where there is the most anxiety about others’ demonstrations of veracity and good faith.

6. Evidence

In an astonishingly economic fashion, Much Ado binds together the issue of evidence with the operation of slander. The damage John inflicts on his victims—Hero directly, and Claudio, Pedro, and Leonato indirectly (they are both the victims and agents of damage)—is the consequence of his slander’s destruction of Hero’s reputation, or “fame.” When Hero’s reputation is undone, her “testimony” counts for nothing; only she could satisfy her accusers’ insistence on counter-evidence, but in their eyes she is perjured in advance.

The discourse surrounding Hero’s “signs” at the wedding scene is clearly legalistic, and thus raises questions about the ways signs, report and fame were taken into account in Elizabethan courts of law. Briefly, court procedure was marked by the only loosely regulated production of circumstantial signs and by an uneasy dependence on the testimony of witnesses. In his famous J.P. manual The Covntrey Ivstice (1618), Michael Dalton, discussing grounds for interrogation of suspects in cases of felony, cites the legal treatise attributed to Henry de Bracton (d. 1268):

Oritur suspitio ex fama; Fama vero quæ suspitionem inducit, oriri debet apud bonos et graues, (non quidem maleuolos et maledicos, sed prouidas et fide dignas personas) idq. non semel, sed sæpius: vane autem voces populi non sunt audienda.[40] And therefore where the common prouerbe is, [vox] populi est vox Dei, it should be, vox populi Dei est vox Dei.[41]

Dalton clearly prefers Bracton’s rule to the still commonly-applied rule that “communis vox et fama … is sufficient cause of suspition” (267). In a 1582 treatise on the principle duties of constables, William Lambarde recommends that a constable or other such local officer

may (of his owne authoritie) arrest one that is endited of Felonie: So, if the common voice and fame be, that A.B. hath doone a felonie, that is sufficient cause for any of these Officers (that shall thereof suspect him) to arrest him for it.[42]

Nevertheless, the “common voice and fame” was insufficient as evidence that the suspect was in fact guilty; but it did give cause for pretrial interrogation, together with what Dalton calls the “circumstances” of the suspect—themselves having as much to do with the suspect’s background and fame as with circumstantial evidence related to the crime. Among these circumstances, Dalton lists the suspect’s “parents, if they were wicked, or giuen to the same kind of fault”[43]; “His nature, if ciuill or hastie, wittie and subtill, a quarreller, pilferer, or bloudie minded, &c.”; “His companie”; “His course of life”; “Whether he be of euill fame, or report “ (Dalton, 266; emphasis supplied).

Thus, while Dalton seems on the one hand to draw a line between fame as cause for suspicion and fame as evidence, he would on the other hand still admit “euill fame, or report” into “consideration” in the “examination of Felons, & other like offendors.” Therefore, common fame that one is “a quarreller, pilferer, or bloudie minded” and so on in fact is cause for a certain disposition toward the subject, through which other sorts of evidence—including “markes or signes” (266)—are read or interpreted.

Don John’s false report of Hero’s incontinence is sufficient to predispose Pedro and Claudio before the spectacle which “proves” her guilt. John accomplishes this feat first by protesting his good intentions (”love”) toward Claudio—in fact, staking a test of that love upon the truth of his claims—and then by lending more force to his slander with the pretense that report cannot do the actuality justice. The combined effect of the slander and the masque is precisely to induce in Claudio the disposition to invert Hero’s “markes and signes”:

Claud. … She’s but the sign and semblance[44] of her honour. Behold how like a maid she blushes here! O, what authority and show of truth Can cunning sin cover itself withal! Comes not that blood as modest evidence[45] To witness simple virtue? Would you not swear, All you that see her, that she were a maid, By these exterior shows? But she is none: She knows the heat of a luxurious bed: Her blush is guiltiness, not modesty. (IV.i.32–41; emphasis supplied)

The density of legalistic diction in this passage is hardly coincidence. In this inversion of the same disposition toward “exterior shows” on which Claudio has relied since the beginning of the play, he finally articulates the judgmental character of that disposition. But at the same time as Claudio acknowledges his dependence on appearance for the “evidence” he requires in judging the essential qualities, or “truth,” of others, he obscures or represses the role of Don John slanderous testimony. Claudio and Pedro have been “planted, placed and possessed” by John, as Borachio puts it to Conrade (III.iii.145); John recognizes the vulnerability of his antagonists to the “poison” of ill-words, and the power of his testimony to manipulate others’ disposition toward ocular evidence.

There is no doubt that critics and audiences alike have been generally unable to forgive Leonato, Claudio and Pedro after this performance, despite the scapegoating of John and Borachio. Such behavior seems disturbingly out of place in what is putatively a comedy; but, rather than read such violent excess as a flaw in the play, I choose to interpret it as thematic guidance. We have been given other opportunities, before this scene, for ambivalence toward the “good” characters, especially Claudio. An audience must feel uneasy about Claudio’s reaction to John’s report in II.i, even though it is unclear exactly how “true” or “false” that report is. But it is clear that Shakespeare takes great care to leave us deeply impressed with Claudio’s virginal anxieties, and also with his ready acceptance of John’s word. Although the details are sketchy, we're aware that John has lately been the enemy of his half-brother and his intimates; and the unresolved issue of John’s credibility leaves us with questions that nag our experience of subsequent events.

Thus we are directed toward what I see as the play’s critique of its characters’ pervasive paranoia, their reliance on corrupted and duplicitous “tokens” and report to guide their desires and behavior. I have heretofore explored the dynamic of masking and hearsay, and the false security embedded in specific dispositions within the reigning discursive structure of the play. But the power of John’s words to “poison” Claudio’s liking—and the frightening ease with which he recapitulates his earlier deception of Claudio in the second act—raises another issue in the regime of legal discourse.

In sixteenth-century England, the role of juries in trial procedure was slowly contracting—while it had always served the primary function of finding the facts of the case, that role had once been partially merged with the jury’s function as quasi-witnesses. Before the Renaissance, English juries were expected not only to be familiar with local social practices and expectations—just as modern juries are—but also to be already familiar with the facts of the case, even to have a more or less interested relationship to those facts.[46] Because social and geographic mobility was limited, persons were generally more intimately bonded and more aware both of the details of others’ lives and the context in which those details made sense. But social changes both altered the scope of a person’s knowledge of the hows and whys of others’ deeds, and altered the bases on which one judged those deeds, in and out of courts of law.[47] These changes were a precondition for the modern concept of “evidence,” a concept which was extremely slow in developing. Barbara Shapiro explains that

In the late fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries, several developments subtly altered English trials and created the need for some kind of law of evidence. By the sixteenth century, juries were no longer so likely to be familiar with the facts of a case. As society became more complex and as mobility increased, juries increasingly came to rely on the testimony of witnesses for information.... Without giving up their right to consider their own personal knowledge in reaching a verdict, juries increasingly relied on witnesses and documents which they now had somehow to evaluate for truthfulness and accuracy.… [Grand jurors], too, were increasingly in the position of third parties who had to employ their rational and analytical faculties to reach conclusions about facts and events they had not personally witnessed or known.[48]

Because, as Shapiro claims, the “response to the new legal environment was slow and halting,” jurors were forced to rely on what they could determine of the quality of the witness, in the absence of any law of evidence. As we have seen in Dalton’s J.P. manual, the power of report to arouse suspicion was held to be proportionate to the credibility of the reporter. But as J.H. Baker emphasizes, although “the usual form of plea was to allege suspicion resulting from the common voice and fame,” “suspicion alone was probably not a justification, nor even the taking of the oath ….”[49] Notwithstanding the limitations on the evidentiary weight of the common fame, the development of procedure in the sixteenth century was very much a function of the court’s reliance on the testimony of particular individuals. Admission of testimony was subject to no clear rule, but rather to the discretion of the judges. Baker discovers in this situation “few rules of evidence, in the modern sense.” There even seems “to have been no firm rule against hearsay” (110). Judges were left to contend with questions of the credibility of witnesses, but did so in fairly arbitrary fashion. And while the judge was still the ultimate adjudicator of admissibility, reliance on witnesses’ reports conferred great power to testimony.

In discussing the general concept of “evidence” in Europe before the Restoration in England, Ian Hacking remarks that

Concepts of testimony and authority were not lacking: they were all too omnipresent as the basis for the old medieval kind of probability that was an attribute of opinion. Testimony is supported by witnesses, and authority is conferred by ancient learning. People provide the evidence of testimony and of authority. What was lacking, was the evidence provided by things. The evidence of things is not to be confused with the data of sense, which, in much modern epistemology, has been regarded as the foundation of all evidence. [Italics supplied][50]

Hacking distinguishes “the evidence of things”—the testimony that things indirectly provide to situations not present to the eye—from “the data of sense,” which concerns simply one’s interpretation of a present situation or thing. According to Hacking, modern Western epistemology developed only with a notion of “internal evidence,” which “consists in one thing pointing beyond itself” (34). “Demonstration, testimony and verisimilitude,” he goes on to claim, “were quite well understood at the beginning of the Renaissance. Only internal evidence was lacking.”

Whatever the historical merits of Hacking’s claims, it is quite clear that his analysis illuminates what appears in Much Ado as a blockage between “the data of sense” (what I have called “ocular evidence”) and actuality. The anxiety latent in the disposition of almost every major character produces a dependence on opinion, on the authority of people and their reports. This is true in particular in Messina, but perhaps more generally in Elizabethan society. As Hacking puts it, “People and books, whether they be authorities or chance witnesses, seem [to us] to stand in place of ourselves.… The Renaissance had it the other way about. Testimony and authority were primary, and things could count as evidence only insofar as they resembled the witness of observers and the authority of books” (33). In other words, discourse retained a power, strange to us, to shape the way things themselves spoke.

If one accepts this model as central to Much Ado—and I hope that in discussing both mediation and evidence I have made the point convincingly—the question still remains as to the source of Don John’s authority. John’s unreliability as a witness—even if he would not appear to Claudio as “perjured”—is well known to the young suitor from the events of II.i. Furthermore, John’s interests in the affairs of Pedro and Claudio seem to be interpreted by the latter two rather generously; we inevitably question his standing in their eyes, especially given the obscure nature of his shadowy rebellion against Pedro. In the deceptive performances staged for the benefit of Benedick and Beatrice, success seems staked both on the passivity and false security inherent to the situation, and on the referencing of the gossip back to reliable authorities—Hero, in Benedick’s case[51]; Claudio and Pedro in Beatrice’s. But in the case of John’s deception of Claudio and Pedro, John presents himself as the only authority. The response of Claudio and Pedro depends only in part on passivity before report. Even allowing that John’s deception at the masked ball does not impress Claudio enough as evidence of his unreliability, I think we must look elsewhere to arrive at a satisfying explanation of John’s second success, and we shall begin by returning to Dame Slaunder.

7. The Honor Code

Dogberry.  Are you good men and true?

According to the author of Dame Slaunder, successful slander usually requires that the words be aptly tailored to the position of each party in the Comedic “triangle”: they must seem to befit the honor and good intentions of the slanderer; they must “pertay[n]” to the victim; and they must hit upon some concealed desire in the hearer (C.2–3). Describing how the slanderer thus tailors his discourse, the author constructs these hypothetical instances:

[Slanderers] accuse the Phisition of poysonynge, the wealthy and rych Citizen of oppression, the Ruler of Treason, then soone doeth the appetite of the hearer, hereunto agree, & mayntaining fit matter for the slaunderer … : as if they meete with one that is in ielousie of his wife, they say to him, such a man did winke at thy wife, as they sat at the table, & he beholding her stedfastly, fetcht many sighes from the bottome of his stomacke, & thy wife againe on the countrary part gaue a sweete louinge sigh, with other tokens, which maketh suspicio[n] of aduoutrie. … [T]heir manner is to bring in reporte made uppon that thing, that a man hath most excellent aboue ouer, bicause the hearer may be the more angrie and should have no leasure to know the trueth, that if he that is accused, desire to purge him self, he is kept backe, bicause of the greatnes of the mischief, and the likenes of the trueth hath made him giltie, before the matter be knowen, for it is not possible to expresse how readie Dame sclaunder is, and how much she preuayleth, if she meete [with] one that is desirous to heare her ... [and the] backbiting sclau[n]derer [departeth as if] whatsoeuer is by him spoken, is of meere good will done…. (C.3–4)

While this passage has no direct authority over Shakespeare’s own representation of slander, the parallels are striking. John’s hollow assurance of good will (”love”) is de rigueur; yet the construction of events in the play makes it difficult for the audience to feel otherwise than shocked that John’s pledge could bear authority. On the other hand, the fact that Hero has been regarded by all—at least in public—as “excellent aboue ouer” in modesty and suitably maiden passivity does suggest that the shock of John’s slander so overwhelms Claudio and Pedro that they are incapable of doubt. We are free to make what we will of the fact that both Claudio and Pedro seem particularly wounded in the area of their honor— a wound certainly more deeply felt than the wound to Hero’s reputation. This fact suggests that their eventual objectification of Hero—as a “rotten orange”[52] and a “pampered animal” (IV.i.31, 60)—is a strategy for healing their wounded sense of self.

Most important, and most resonant, however, is the author’s contention that slander is consummated in the desire of the hearer to entertain it. In most of the cases considered in Dame Slaunder, envy and jealousy are the roots of this desire. Borachio counts on this sort of desire when plotting Claudio’s overthrow: “there shall appear such seeming truth of Hero’s disloyalty that jealousy shall be called assurance and all the preparation overthrown” (II.ii.47–50). Jealousy had certainly come into play on the occasion of John’s first slander, when Claudio’s latent fear of Pedro’s skills in courtship seems to threaten his astonishingly fragile masculine self-image. His outburst upon being deceived, however, accuses Pedro only on the way to condemning Hero’s beauty; if this slander were consummated by the book, Claudio would fixate on the half-desired betrayal by his mentor. Rather, he absolves Pedro at the expense of Hero, who would to any reasonable mind seem completely innocent of breach of trust: “for beauty is a witch/ Against whose charms faith melteth into blood./ This is an accident of hourly proof,/ Which I mistrusted not” (II.i.167–70).

Because we, though ignorant of what has transpired between Pedro and Hero, are certainly expected to find Claudio’s self-pity excessive, we take special note of his paranoia. It is precisely because this scene conditions our response to Claudio through the next two acts that we are compelled to recognize the same anxieties and fears played out in the marriage scene. I would press this claim so far as to say that, whether or not an audience can reflect on it, Claudio actively desires Hero’s betrayal—or at least is more than prepared to find it credible. And this is true because we are impressed over and over again by Claudio’s virginal terror of female witchcraft and of his own passivity—of the power of beauty to “melt” “faith … into blood,” reducing seeming commitment to others’ interests to self-interested will. Hero’s betrayal would vindicate Claudio’s paranoia and ratify what appears by IV.i to be his unwillingness or incapacity to pledge “faith” in a dangerous other. Furthermore, Hero’s betrayal would spare Claudio’s sacrificing membership in what Harry Berger calls “the Men’s Club of Messina”[53]—where he has established his identity and his concept of honor.

Claudio’s deep mistrust of beauty’s witchcraft—and thus of women’s faithfulness—is merely an intensified version of a general anxiety Shakespeare insists on in this play. The persistent equation, by both male and female characters alike, of marriage with cuckoldry is a joke that neither Claudio nor we find funny for long. From his first to very nearly his last word, Benedick plays the role of chief spokesman for this equation—though it is in fact Leonato who sets him off (I.i.97). Cuckoldry may have been a joking matter to Elizabethans, but not to the cuckold, whose precious honor was directly at stake. As Lawrence Stone explains,

In the sixteenth, seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, the concept of honour had a very clearly defined meaning, which was significantly different from that of today. The worst thing a man could say about another man was that he was a liar. ‘Giving the lie’ inevitably resulted in a challenge to a duel in genteel circles, and in a fight in peasant or artisan circles. The worst thing a woman could say about another woman was that she was unchaste, which might well result in a lawsuit for slander in an ecclesiastical court. Thus a man’s honour depended on the reliability of his spoken word; a woman’s honour on her reputation for chastity.

But the honour of a married man was also severely damaged if he got the reputation of being a cuckold, since this was a slur both on his virility and his capacity to rule his own household. He became the joke of the village, or at a higher level of his associates, and was defamed and thought unfit for public office. The Elizabethan Thomas Wythorne remarked bitterly on the injustice of a situation in which ‘a man’s honesty and credit doth depend and lie in his wife’s tail.’ ...

This idea that female honour depended upon a reputation for pre-marital chastity and marital fidelity was one which was most effectively internalized in the middling ranks of society. Until one reaches the apex of the pyramid, the higher one goes in the society and the greater the amount of property likely to change hands with a marriage, the greater the stress on pre-marital chastity.[54]

These are the criteria of “honor” which get played out, down to the last detail, in Much Ado. Pedro is especially conscious, at the marriage scene, of his own good name, indignant that he “stand[s] dishonour'd, that [has] gone about/ To link [his] friend to a common stale” (IV.i.64–5); later, he swears “upon mine honour” to the false evidence. Just as Claudio—whose concern for Hero’s modesty and dowry we remember from the first act—falsely condemns Hero’s honor as a nothing, Pedro stakes his honor on that nothing; thus, both men in fact bring dishonor upon themselves.[55] Beatrice prods Benedick into challenging Claudio to a duel of honor because the latter “slandered, scorned, dishonoured [her] kinswoman” (l. 301). As long as Benedick resists, Beatrice can accuse his “manhood” of “melt[ing] into curtsies,” his “valour into complement” (ll. 318–9).

This very notion of honor is also promoted by Castiglione, who can have Julian insist that “me thinketh it a meete matter to punish them in like manner sharpely, that with lies bring up a slaunder upon woman. And I believe that every worthie gentleman is bound to defend alwaies with weapon, where neede requireth, the truth, and especiallye when he knoweth any woman falsely reported to be of litle honestie” (220). Needless to say, Beatrice’s discourse takes Julian’s notion for granted, and one may assume that an Elizabethan audience would at least recognize, if not practice by, the code of honor which finds its paradigmatic expression in a man’s defending a woman’s truth against sexual slander.

Assuming, then, that the contemporary notion of honor was most bound up in one’s reputation for faithfulness—male veracity, female chastity—it is also true that one’s faithfulness was measured against one’s honorable reputation. In other words, one’s “credit” among men and women depended on the maintenance of one’s honor, the protection of oneself from at least the appearance of unfaithfulness, and from misapprehension and misinterpretation. Thus, the worst blow to honor would be false report of one’s falsity—which all at once incapacitates truthful protests of one’s truthfulness.

When John and Borachio are identified—even by Leonato—as the primary authors of everyone’s dishonor, Claudio and Pedro are freed to reestablish themselves within the reigning code of honor. And it is this code which compels Claudio to accept Leonato’s “punishment,” marriage to his “niece,” sight unseen. Claudio bids Leonato to “impose me to what penance your invention/ Can lay upon my sin,” yet at the same time quickly puts in that he “sinn'd … not/ But in mistaking” (V.i.267–9). With Hero allegedly dead, and his sin against her self-absolved, Claudio owes a debt of honor only to Leonato; Pedro likewise begs for any fit punishment “to satisfy this good old man” (l. 270). All this follows Claudio’s very, very brief expression of something not exactly remorse over Hero’s “death”; Claudio’s and Pedro’s pact with Leonato, in Hero’s absence, is concluded purely in terms of the male code of honor which the play seems to leave intact.

While, at its resolution, Much Ado would appear to approve blind faith, it at the same time undercuts it. The “faith” Claudio invests in act V is hardly faith in his new fiancée—who might turn out to be an “Ethiope” for all he knows or seems to care—but rather a pledge to the same code which has governed and in a sense produced much of the foregoing unhappiness. Furthermore, emerging from their simulation of mutual aversion, Beatrice and Benedick stand closest to the audience by the end of the play, and neither articulates any creed of blind faith. But where they are committed to a love qualified by “reason,” we sense in Claudio’s and Hero’s rediscovery only relief in their newly codified, conventional pledge.


That Claudio recovers Hero is due, then, to his allegiance to a code of honor that is economic in structure (he must “satisfy” Leonato) and paranoid in character. To live by this code is to protect one’s credit in a market where value is registered against the standard of “truth.” But that standard is immaterial and unquantifiable, and furthermore is itself the product of faith—“credit” in another (verbal) sense. The code is thus self-referential and self-sustaining, kept in operation only by a communal faith, blind investment in its nothingness. Response to violations of the code must be systematic and automatic.

When redress for “giving the lie” is an obligatory duel, the balance is righted only by the elimination of one party; otherwise the cycle of reciprocation would escalate beyond the principles and draw in all others bound to them by kinship or honor. When the violence is properly coded—as it is not by the impotent Escalus in Romeo and Juliet—the damage may be contained. The code equates verbal assault with mortal violence and thus resecures the lock hold of reputation on credit, of language on selfhood. When vulnerability to others’ testimony becomes, as it was increasingly becoming in the late 16th century, a danger to one’s integrity as a self, one responds by coding perceived threats in the register of physical violence and by constricting the circuit of exchange.

As I have attempted to show, Shakespeare exposes two major and opposed pitfalls of the system: over-investment in appearances, and self-consuming devaluation of appearances. But over-investment and devaluation go hand-in-hand; both are produced by the fact that the code can never guarantee absolute access to actual intentions, actual feelings, actual “truths.” To stake all on appearances is to be a credulous fool; to stake any less is to risk being consumed by suspicion. If, in the latter case, one begins to require further “proof” of others’ faithfulness, one becomes trapped in a legalistic vicious circle, and is in the end again dependent on appearances and indirect testimony.

In directing a critique at both untested credence and spiraling paranoia, Shakespeare exposes the trap his characters fall into when, uncertain of their own capacity to know the truth, they become dependent on opinion. As others are invested with the authority to bear witness to the truth—when they are supposés savoir—their opinion of our desire becomes our desire; their constructions of the truth become our own. Shakespeare seems to offer his audience some escape from the “unsavory” side of this situation in the discourses of, on the one side, Beatrice and Benedick and, on the other, Dogberry, Verges and the watch. These characters succeed because they seem, intentionally or not, to transcend the system, to be excessive to it. Benedick and Beatrice transform distortion into wit; they actively shape the materials of language into weapons which thrill as they wound. Dogberry and company unintentionally intensify the distortions of fashionable language to the point where their ridiculousness is occasion for our release.

Yet Dogberry never desires to escape the system he travesties; the joke is precisely that, in wishing to be thought a gentleman, he plays the part so badly that he plays it all too well. And of course, Benedick and Beatrice only seem to be in control of their discourse and its limits. Their “merry war” is brought to a climax only through the medium of systematic and disingenuous gossip. We are even allowed, momentarily, to imagine that, once the sham has been exposed, they will renounce their pledge to each other. But when the “evidence” of their true feelings—sonnets “fashion'd” to each other, or rather to the “opinion of one another’s dotage” (V.iv.85–90; II.iii.208)—is exhibited, they confess. As their “hands” testify against their “hearts” (V.iv.91), the truth betrays their delusions of control. If these two do not transcend the system, they at least push it to the point where loving violence promises a perpetual balance of power.

In disparaging the conventional—courtly, legalistic—system in which “proof” of love, honor, faith and veracity is established, Shakespeare promotes a kind of violence that is meritorious to the extent that it distorts and parodies the system. When the violence is deliberate and graceful, especially when set off against anxious and clumsy modes of masked violence, it inspires our admiration. But it also has the effect of leaving us slightly soured on the entire system which supports it. The comic misapprehensions and false suppositions which enable the plot of Much Ado are grounded in that system; the play never transcends it, and thus necessarily criticizes itself as it criticizes the system.


[1] An Approach to Shakespeare (London, 1968), I: 264.

[2] E.J. West, "Much Ado about an Unpleasant Play," Shakespeare Association Bulletin 22 (1947), p. 34.

[3] For example, "Much Ado about an Unpleasant Play," "More Ado about Claudio," "Much Ado about Something," "Love, Appearance and Reality: Much Ado about Something," and "Much Ado about Mendacity," just to mention the few on my desk as I type this.

[4] All citations of Much Ado about Nothing are to the Arden text prepared by A.R. Humphreys (London, 1981). Citations to other works by Shakespeare are to the texts prepared by G. Blakemore Evans for The Riverside Shakespeare (Boston, 1974).

[5] R.G. White was the first to claim that "Shakespeare and his contemporaries" called the play "Much Ado about Noting ; a pun being intended between 'nothing' and 'noting’ … and upon which pun depends by far the more important significance of the title" (Shakespeare’s Scholar [New York, 1854], p. 226). For a digest of White’s argument and of early debate over it, see Horace H. Furness, ed., A New Variorum Edition of Shakespeare: Much Adoe about Nothing, 5th ed. (Philadelphia, 1899), pp. 6 and 113–6.

[6] I regretfully use "veridical" in the absence of any word which would economically convey my meaning. I mean by "veridical" verificatory, but I also wish to exploit an "ideational rhyme" with "juridical," and thus to imply a disposition toward phenomena which subjects those phenomena to judgment as true or false. See, in this context, Ian Hacking’s discussion of "styles of reasoning" and the disposition toward statements as "true-or-false" in "Language, Truth and Reason," in Rationality and Relativism, Martin Hollis and Steven Lukes, eds. (Oxford, 1982), pp. 48–66. The phrase "ideational rhyme" is Stephen Booth’s.

[7] Castiglione’s Il Libro del Cortegiano (Venice, 1528) was "Englished" by Sir Thomas Hoby in 1561. According to J.H. Whitfield, "By 1600 there were nearly 60 editions in the original Italian, and apart from translations into the main languages of Europe there were also, down to 1713, seventeen editions of no fewer than three Latin versions"—J.H. Whitfield, ed., The Book of the Courtier, trans. Sir Thomas Hoby (London, 1975), p. v. But, as Whitfield points out, editions were much less frequent after the 16th century, which perhaps indicates that the traditions and self-stylings promoted by the book may already have been, at the writing of Much Ado, slightly passé and thus subject to self-conscious critique.

[8] But see below, n.25.

[9] The Book of the Courtier, ed. Whitfield, e.g., pp. 237, 240, 245–6, 254–5. All subsequent page references are to this edition and will be included in the text.

[10] A quick survey of Shakespeare’s uses of "token"—which never appears in Much Ado itself—confirms that about half the time the word indicates some form of erotic pledge or manifestation. For example: "Send forth your amorous token for fair Maudlin"—All’s Well, V.iii.68; "This is some token from a newer friend" and "This is some minx’s token"—Othello, III.iv.181, IV.i.153; Laertes tells Ophelia to "Admit no messengers, receive no tokens" from Hamlet, Hamlet II.ii.144. This sense of the word "token" is most prevalent in All’s Well and Othello.

[11] Lord Julian later amplifies the point: "Truth it is, that in case the eyes bee not governed with arte, they discover many times the amorous desires more unto whom a man would least: for through them, (in a manner) visibly shine forth those burning passions, which the lover minding to disclose onely to the wight beloved, openeth them many times also unto whom he would most soonest hide them from" (248). Julian here overturns an earlier recommendation to the Courtier to "make his love knowne … in signes and tokens more than in wordes. … Afterwarde, to make the eyes the trustie messengers, that may carrie the ambassades of the hart" (246). His later advice hinges on the sort of "arte" one must apply to self-betraying eyes, in order to dissemble just enough to avoid arousing suspicions in presumably hostile parties.

[12] Advising Lord Gasper on how "not to have a repulse," Julian suggests that if the Courtier “will needs write or speake" to the object of his intentions, that he “doe it with such sober moode, and so warily, that the wordes may first attempt the minde, and so doubtfully touch her entent and will, that they may leave her a way and a certain issue to faine the understanding that those wordes containe love: to the entent if he finde any daunger, hee may draw backe and make wise to have spoken or written it to another ende” (246). Such infinitely regressive strategies, once again, can only contribute to paranoia and doubt as to the signification of “tokens,” especially tokens of desire.

[13] I will be unable here to adequately address Dogberry’s prominent and memorable role in the play. To be brief, my instinctive sense is that Dogberry is intended to intensify or hyperbolize the principle discourses of the play, which are themselves bound up in conscious or unconscious distortion and in an excessive concern for appearances and the appearance of "honor." In making a career out of "fright[ing] the word out of his right sense," Dogberry, ironically, becomes the agent of truth. He creatively "deforms" deformed discourse, exposes witty eloquence as witless pretense, and inverts false signifiers back into truth. It is interesting to measure Dogberry’s role and function in Much Ado against a popular pamphlet by Will Kemp—for whom, as evidence clearly shows, the part of Dogberry was intended. In Kemps nine daies vvonder (London, 1600), Kemp intends, in producing a self-serving account of his morris-dance between London and Norwich, to further "reprooue the slaunders spred of him" (title page). Kemp’s detective work in discovering the principle author of the slander is rather neat, but his prose is far from witty.

[14] The Lord Julian, in condemning loose women of the palace who "doe their best to winne them as many [lovers] as they can," complains that they "use certaine wanton countenances, with baudie words and gestures full of unshamefastnesse, holding opinion that men marke them and give eare to them willingly for it, and with these fashions make themselves beloved, which is false. ¶ Because the signes and tokens that bee made them, spring of an apetite moved by an opinion of easinesse, not of love." The Book of the Courtier, p. 240. It is this sort of fashioning which John seems to condemn, but which he will later, in a sense, indulge.

[15] Sir Thomas Elyot, The Book named the Governor (1531–2), ed. S.E. Lehmberg (London, 1962), p. 163.

[16] Hero’s performances at II.i.79–91 and at III.i and III.iv would seem to belie any simple claim that she is "constitutively" passive. Yet Shakespeare seems to go out of his way to emphasize her loss of words at other moments when we surely expect her to say something—for example, at I.i in toto (she speaks one of the 309 lines in the scene); at II.i.287; and of course at IV.i.68 ff. At these moment she is incapable of actively challenging speech about or addressed to her. One might fruitfully trace the ebbs and flows of Hero’s discourse, perhaps, to illustrate better than I will be able the distinction between passivity and "modesty."

[17] Margaret "playfully" insults Benedick by throwing back his witty words as "blunt as the fencer’s foils, which hit, but hurt not" (V.ii.13–4). Beatrice likewise parries with Benedick, who is in disguise, by anticipating his jibes as "comparison[s]" he will merely "break" on her, "which peradventure not marked, or not laughed at, strikes him into melancholy" (II.i.136–8).

[18] This latter point is stressed by Joyce H. Sexton in The Slandered Woman in Shakespeare (Victoria, B.C., 1978), esp. in ch. 2, "Much Ado about Nothing and Garter’s Susanna" (pp. 39–49).

[19] I use the word "performative" in a sense which departs in some respects from the terminology of speech-act theory. A slanderous remark—for example, "Thou art a thief"—while "constative" in the sense that it purportedly describes a condition in the real world, is "performative" in two senses. Such a statement in itself establishes a condition in the real world—a condition detrimental to the victim—the effects of which may in fact be identical to the effects which would ensue upon the victim if the act described had truly been actual and published. Less technically, the remark is "performative" also to the extent that it is intended to produce psychic/emotive responses independent of its "truth-claims," independent of any "word-to-world" fit. The case of Beatrice’s and Benedick’s "merry war" is identical—thus their wit is in my sense "performative." As we shall see, slander is of interest to those who addressed the topic in Renaissance England almost exclusively in terms of its "performative" effects, for which consideration of its constative truth-claim served mostly as a posterior alibi for quashing action.

[20] The fact that Leonato’s first response to the news is to ask Antonio if "the fellow … that told you this" "hath … any wit" will be significant in the context of my discussion, below, of testimony.

[21] The fact that Claudio plays into John’s deception by responding to John as Benedick—when both parties know that he is in fact Claudio—affirms his selective mistrust of others’ interests in bearing him report.

[22] For an interesting pursuit of this theme, see Richard A. Levin, Love and Society in Shakespearean Comedy (Newark, N.J., 1985),, ch. 4, "Crime and Cover-up in Messina," esp. pp. 89–93. Levin suggests that Pedro is a little too interested—particularly in Claudio—and that his vicarious wooing of Hero is in fact part of a larger power-play directed at Claudio.

[23] Lawrence Stone, The Family, Sex and Marriage in England 1500–1800 (New York, 1977), p. 96.

[24] Claudio of course rehearses all the familiar associations of the female with fickleness, mutability, unreliability, witchcraft—and so finally with appearance itself, now conceived as intrinsically unfaithful.

[25] "Beatrice and Benedick themselves, though not referable to precise sources, owe much to two traditions. These are those of the scorner of love, rejecting suitors, and of the witty courtiers in many Renaissance stories exchanging debate or badinage"—A.R. Humphries, Arden edition, p.14. Charles T. Prouty reports, with some skepticism, Mary Augusta Scott’s hypothesis that Benedick and Beatrice resemble in certain respects Lord Gaspare Pallavicino and the Lady Emilia Pia, two figures prominent in Castiglione’s The Book of the Courtier. See Prouty, The Sources of Much Ado about Nothing (New Haven, CT, 1950), p. 52; and Scott, "The Book of the Courtyer: A Possible Source of Benedick and Beatrice," PMLA 16 (1901): 475–502.

[26] A Plaine description of the Auncient Petigree of Dame Slaunder, togither With hir Co-heires and fellowe members, Lying, Flattering, Backebyting, (being the Diuels deare darlinges) Playnly and Pithely described and set forth in thier colours from their first descent, of what lineage and kinred they came off. Eyther of them severally in his place set forth, as thou mayest reade hereafter (London, 1573).

[27] Dame Slaunder, fo. C.ivv. Subsequent citations will be included in the text.

[28] Words are again figured as poison taken through the ear when Borachio reveals John’s scheme to Pedro and Claudio: "I have," Claudio replies, "drunk poison whiles he uttered it" (V.i.240).

[29] See the discussion of Michael Dalton’s The Covntrey Ivstice, below.

[30] John March, Actions for Slander (London, 1647), pp. 2–3. Subsequent citations are included in the text.

[31] The Reports of Sir Edward Coke, part 4 [herafter abbreviated 4. Co Rep], repr. in The English Reports, full reprint (Edinburgh, 1900–32), vol. 76, King’s Bench Division V (1907) [hereafter abbreviated ER ].

[32] "And Wray Chief Justice said, that although slanders and false imputations are to be suppressed, because many a … verbis ad verbera perventum est: yet he said, that the Judges had resolved, that actions for scandals should not be maintained by any strained construction of argument, nor any favour ... given to support them, forasmuch as in these days they more abound than in times past, and the intemperance and malice of men increase; et malitiis hominum est obviandum: and in our books actiones pro scandalis sunt rarissimae; and such which are brought, are for words of eminent slanders [scandala magnata] and of great import." Stanhope and Blith (King’s Bench, 1585), 4. Co Rep, 15a; ER 892. This case had immense importance in establishing certain procedures in subsequent cases.

[33] Leonato speaks similarly in confronting Claudio: "I say thou hast belied mine innocent child;/Thy slander hath gone through and through her heart" (V.i.67–8). Maintaining the sham of Hero’s death, Leonato accosts Borachio with: "Art thou the slave that with thy breath hast kill'd/Mine innocent child?" (ll. 257–8).

[34] If the words are true—i.e., legitimately constative—there is, however, no legitimate recourse to prosecution upon the case of damages; in fact, such a case is likely to backfire upon the plaintiff. Furthermore, if the alleged slander (true or false) is proved to be the subject of common gossip [communis vox et fama], the defendant can less easily be proved accountable for its publication. The plaintiff must demonstrate that the defendant is either the author, primary publisher, or both, of the slander to make his case on damages stick. "It was … inevitable that the question should be raised of repetition as opposed to origination of a slander. In 1535 the defendant had accused the plaintiff of stealing sheep, and the court rejected his plea that such was ‘the common voice and fame of the countryside.’ While a defendant was not to escape under cover of common gossip, his position might be happier if he not only claimed to be repeating with accuracy the statement of another but identified his informant"—C.H.S. Fifoot, History and Sources of the Common Law (London, 1949), p. 133.

[35] Demonstrable damage was not required for a case if the plaintiff were accused of a crime, especially capital felony—long the only actionable form of slander in common law*—or if the slander otherwise inherently threatened a man "in member" or potentially rendered him subject to "any corporell punishment" (March, pp. 10, 62, 97). Furthermore, words "which scandall a man in his office or place of trust, or in his calling or function, by which he gaines his living, or which charge him with any great infectious disease, by reason of which hee ought to separate himselfe or to be separated by the Law from the society of Men; all such words will beare an Action, without averring or alledging of any particular damage by the speaking of them" (March, 97). Thus, action could be brought on the case of words, rather than on the case of damage, when the constative content of those words attacked the honor upon which a man’s practice of a profession depended, or when the plaintiff’s body was alleged to endanger any who came in contact with it—where the "damage" would extend to loss of mobility rather than to loss of property or money. * The first actions "on the case" of words in English common law, which were brought to court in 1535–6, involved accusations of theft. "Once admitted, actions on the case of words multiplied apace"—Fifoot, p. 129.

[36] For an extensive discussion of the vicissitudes in the rivalry between courts local and ecclesiastical, see R.H. Helmholz, ed., Select Cases on Defamation to 1600 [Publications of the Selden Society, v.101] (London, 1985), esp. pp. xli–xlvii.

[37] March, discussing the case of Davis v. Gardiner [4. Co Rep, 16b; ER 897–900], summarizes the opinion of the court, which held that Gardiner’s allegation that Davis had a bastard by a grocer is actionable, first because such would be a statutory offence (by 18 Eliz. c.3), and secondly because it defeated her imminent marriage to a third party, a defeat which is in and of itself actionable because words which "tend to the hinderance or loss of a man’s preferment … will bear Action" (94).

[38] 4. Co Rep, 16b -17a: "if a man is called bastard, or heretic, or miscreant, or adulterer, (forasmuch as these belong to the ecclesiastical jurisdiction) no action lies at the common law; and in proof thereof 12 H.7. 22 a. b. & 27 H. 8. 14 a. b were cited" (ER 898); March also cites 4. Co Rep 20a (ER 909), which is partially reproduced below.

[39] When woman speaks in Castiglione, she requires of man that, if he did love, "all [his] desires shoulde bee to please the woman beloved, and to will the selfe same thing that she willeth, for this is the law of love." The man replies, "Nay … there is no doubt but I will that that she willeth, which is a signe I love her: but it greeveth mee because she willeth not that, that I will, which is a token she loveth not me, according to the very same law that you have alleaged" (245). For Lacan on the law of love and the "privelege" of the "Other" (as sexual other and as "site" of language) see "The Signification of the Phallus," in Écrits: a Selection, tr. Alan Sheridan (New York, 1977), esp. pp. 286–7.

[40] "Suspicion arises from report [fama]: True report [fama] which induces suspicion, must arise among good and serious citizens [bonos et graues—no precise translation is possible] (who are not ill-wishers and ill-speakers, but persons prudent and worthy of faith), not one time, but more often: however, the empty voices of the people must not be listened to." [My free translation.]

[41] Michael Dalton, The Covntrey Ivstice (London, 1618), p. 267. Subsequent citations will be included in the text. For a discussion of the history and authority of the treatise ascribed to Bracton, see J.H. Baker, An Introduction to English Legal History, 2nd. ed. (London, 1979), pp. 161 ff.

[42] William Lambard[e], The Duties of Constables (London, 1582), p. 17.

[43] Note, in this context, Leonato’s appalling performance after Hero’s undoing. Obsessed with how her "shames" redound on his own reputation, he cries: "Why had I not with charitable hand/Took up a beggar’s issue at my gates,/ Who smirched thus, and mir'd with infamy,/ I might have said, 'No part of it is mine;/ This shame derives itself from unknown loins'?" (IV.i.131–5).

[44] Just at the moment Claudio would seem to redeem himself, he reemphasizes his dependence on "semblances": "Sweet Hero! Now thy image doth appear/In the rare semblance that I lov'd it first" (V.i.245–6). This echo is hardly available to the theatregoer; it is merely an incidental textual confirmation of what at least some feel is Claudio’s arrested conversion.

[45] Compare Lucrece’s complaint to "her lord and other company": "‘Mine enemy was strong, my poor self weak/ … My bloody judge forbod my tongue to speak,/ No rightful plea might plead for justice there./His scarlet lust came evidence to swear/That my poor beauty purloin'd his eyes,/ And when the judge is robb'd, the prisoner dies’" (The Rape of Lucrece, ll. 1646–52). Apart from considerations of allegorical effects and of the larger conceit, it is notable that Shakespeare again conceives flushed features as "legal" evidence, but this time of anything but "simple virtue." Blood is, furthermore, very important in Dalton’s catalogue of the "circumstances" to be considered in examining "Felons, & other like offendors"—among the "Markes or Signes" are: "If he hath any bloud about him"; "The change of his countenance, his blushing, looking downewards, silence, trembling"; "The bleeding of the dead bodie in his presence"; and "If he bleede" (p. 266). "Can [Hero] here deny," cries Leonato, "the story that is printed in her blood?" (IV.i.121–2).

[46] "Initially, trial by jury [in England] required little in the way of rules of evidence. Jurors, men of the neighborhood, were assumed to know the facts of the case and to incorporate their knowledge in the verdict. … The only critical factor thought to be essential in obtaining a fair trial was insuring that the jury was not biased in such a way as to purposely falsify its verdict"—Barbara J. Shapiro, Probability and Certainty in Seventeenth-Century England (Princeton, NJ, 1983), pp. 175–6.

[47] "It could still be argued that the jury was supposed to proceed upon its own knowledge if there was no evidence or if the evidence was incomplete. … Yet the chances that the jurors would have private knowledge, unless they went out of their way to gather information before the trial, cannot have been great. … Sir Thomas More stated quite explicitly in 1533 that jurors were not to be regarded as witnesses, but as judges of fact"—J.H. Baker, "Introduction," The Reports of John Spelman, v.2 [Publications of the Selden Society, v.94] (London, 1978), p. 109.

[48] Shapiro, p.176.

[49] J.H. Baker, introduction to The Reports of John Spelman, v. 2, Publications of the Selden Society, v. 94 (London, 1978), p. 110. Subsequent citations are included in the text.

[50] Ian Hacking, The Emergence of Probability (London, 1975), p. 32. Subsequent citations are included in the text.

[51] Benedick also buys the gossip because of his estimation of Leonato’s reliability as a witness: "I should think this a gull, but that the white-bearded fellow speaks it. Knavery cannot sure hide himself in such reverence" (II.iii.118–20). Compare Ursula’s playful remark to the masked Antonio at the ball: "Can virtue hide itself?" (II.i.112).

[52] At this intense moment, Claudio echoes Troilus, for whom spoiled food is the crowning metaphor for sexual satiety: "the remainder viands/ We do not throw in unrespective sieve/ Because we are now full"; Troilus and Cressida II.ii.69–71. The spoiled food imagery renders the object of desire as a cheap, perishable object of consumption, and also seems to reveal some anxiety about dependence, vulnerability, deprivation, and undernourishment. See Janet Adelman, "‘This Is and Is Not Cressid’: The Characterization of Cressida," in The (M)other Tongue: Essays in Feminist Psychoanalytic Interpretation, Shirley N. Garner, Claire Kehane and Madelon Sprengnether, eds. (Ithaca, N.Y., 1985), pp. 119–41.

[53] Harry Berger, Jr., "Against the Sink-a-Pace: Sexual and Family Politics in Much Ado about Nothing, " Shakespeare Quarterly 33 (1982): 302–13. Berger’s argument has indirectly but profoundly influenced my own.

[54] Stone, op.cit., pp. 503–4.

[55] Touchstone explores the paradox of swearing by that which is nought in As You Like It, I.ii.


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