Deception and villainy in Shakespeare's "Much ado about nothing"

Seminar Paper, 2008

15 Pages, Grade: 2,3




1 Appearance and reality

2 Forms of deception
2.1 Villainous deception
2.2 Good-willed deception
2.3 Hero's mock death

3 Villainy
3.1 Don John's character traits
3.2 Don John's function within the play
3.2.1 Don Pedro supposedly woos Hero for himself
3.2.2 Hero’s supposed cuckoldry
3.3 How Don John’s intrigues work

4 Deceivability
4.1 The characters’ personality traits
4.2 Comedy and real-life




Deception and the exploitation of the characters’ credulousness are leitmotifs within Shakespeare’s play “Much ado about nothing”. central theme in the play is trickery or deceit, whether for good or evil purposes.

However, the people being deceived are not as unintelligent as one might think at first perception. Most of them have a high social rank and this usually implies that people have access to higher education. This is proved by the character’s high command of rhetoric stylistic devices, their expression and the way they phrase their thoughts and feelings. Even Don Pedro, who generally seems to be above everything, can be easily deceived by his bastard brother Don John. The recipient notices this in scene 3.2 when Don John makes them believe that Margret is Hero who has premarital sexual intercourse and thus is infidelous towards Claudio.

There are three important forms of deception within the play of which I will inform you in section 2.. Furthermore I will state Don John’s character traits, define the villain’s function, name his intrigues and how they perfectly work. In the last section I try to explain the reason why it is apparently easy to deceive the fundamentally intelligent characters.

1 Appearance and reality

On the whole, Shakespeare shows the characters’ dealing between appearance and reality and deception and self-deception. Nearly every character of the play is involved in a deception and has to learn to distinguish appearance from reality. Paradoxically, even the most intelligent characters are not excluded. Schabert characterises the appearance and reality theme as follows:

Schon der Titel der Komödie verweist auf ihr zentrales Thema: die verwirrungsstiftende Macht des Scheins, des nicht Wirklichen, sondern nur Eingebildeten und Suggerierten. So stellt das „nothing“ des Titels im elisabethanischen Englisch ein deutliches Wortspiel mit dem ähnlich lautenden „noting“ dar, das in diesem Lustspiel gelegentlich als Ausdruck des Wahrnehmens und Erkennens verwendet wird. [...] Schein wird dabei nicht nur durch intrigante Verstellungen produziert, sondern auch durch das „self-fashioning“[1].

In all of the scenes in which one or several characters are deveiced, the deceived one attaches more value to the spoken word than to what is true in the end. This applies to almost everyone except Friar Francis in the wedding scene (5.1). The balancing act between recognising appearance and reality is demonstrated in Act 2.1 during the masked ball. A masquerade ball can bee deemed an allegory for facades. By pretending to regard Claudio as Benedick, Don John manages to scheme Claudio and tells him his friend Don Pedro woos Hero for himself. Borachio assists Don John in this plot. A further important misconception of appearance and reality is found during the wedding scene (compare to: chapter 2.3 and 3.3 of my term paper).

Therefore, Cummings phrases the comedy’s message as follows: “All is not what it seems”.[2] In Dawsons view “The central action of the play, then, is delivering messages”.[3] In the whole play one mostly meets a character telling the other characters about on what he has just eavesdropped and about his interpretations.

2 Forms of deception

A central theme within the play is trickery and deception, either for good or evil purposes. “In Ado demonstriert Shakespeare auf umfassende Weise die Anfälligkeit menschlicher Wahrnehmung für – unbewusst oder bewusst erfolgte – Täuschungen.“ [4]

2.1 Villainous deception

The most important deception in Much ado about nothing is Don John's intrigue of making Claudio and Don Pedro believe that Hero gives herself to premarital sexual intercourse (Act 3.2). Instead of cancelling the wedding ceremony, Claudio awaits the ceremony and slanders Hero publicly. The following quotation of Claudio underlines that Don John’s trick worked as planned:

[…] What man was he talked with you yesternight/ Out at your window betwixt twelve and one?” (4.1 ll.83-84).Don Pedro sides with Claudio by characterising Hero as a prostitute: […] I stand dishonoured that have gone about/To link my dear friend to a common stale.” (4.1 l.64).

2.2 Good-willed deception

It seems ambiguous to call a deception "a good-willed" or a “proper”[5] one with respect to the fact that deceptions normally tend to involve a negative association. However, regardless of Don John's mentality, one can consider the deception of Benedick and Beatrice in Act 2.3 (Benedick is being deceived by his male companions and Leonato) and 3.1 (Beatrice is being deceived by Ursula and Hero) a good-willed deception. Don Pedro, Leonato, Claudio want Benedick and Beatrice to know that they are in love with each other, or rather they want to match them and use the means of overhearing to make the protagonists believe that they are in love with each other. They mean well with Benedick and Beatrice. One can assign their action to deception but it is by no means a negative one. The deception works because after having eavesdropped on their friends’ conversations, both Benedick and Beatrice believe immediately in what they have just overheard. Apparently, they do not reflect on the truth of certain aspects or what they are told, respectively. Thus, even Benedick and Beatrice are deceivable.

2.3 Hero's mock death

After having been disdained and socially disgraced, Hero's pretended death is a method to show Claudio and Don Pedro that they have wronged Hero. Friar Francis is the one who does not fall in the deceptional trap like the others and who suggests the plan. Both Friar Francais and the Watch belong to a different class.

Claudios Vertrauen in die sinnliche Erkenntnis erweist sich im Verlauf des Stückes als wenig verlässlich, der an Hero gerichtete Vorwurf der Promiskuität als nicht haltbar. Es wird deutlich, dass das Wahrgenommene keinen Wert hat ohne eine angemessene Beurteilung. Diese Bewertung wird vorgenommen von Pater Francis, der sich eben nicht ausschließlich auf seine visuelle Wahrnehmungsfähigkeit verlässt, sondern zur Beurteilung des Sachverhalts auch seine Lebenserfahrung heranzieht.[6]

Shakespeare points out that Friar Francis and the Watch have a different view of life and thus they see the truth. Indeed, Friar Francis wants Claudio and Don Pedro to rue the public slander, or strictly speaking, the public vengeance: “[…] Your daughter here the princes left for dead./Let her awhile be secretly kept in,/And publish it that she is dead indeed./Maintain a mourning ostentation”(Act 4.1, ll.201-205). Friar Francis justifies the pretended death by saying “Change slander to remorse” (Act 4.1, l. 211).Leonato, Friar Francis and Hero let in Benedick and Beatrice on their so to speak intrigue. Claudio and Don Pedro do not sooner have regrets until Dogberry (= deus ex machina) throws light on Don John’s and his henchmen’s plot (Act 5.1). The motive of deception is recognisable again. Claudio and Don Pedro do believe immediately that Hero is dead. They unhesitatingly believe in what others say. Normally, people sometimes tend to doubt at what others say or what they perceive. But the characters of the play take everything as face value and they take it for granted that everything they hear or they are told is true.

By pretending Hero to be dead, Friar Francais, Leonato and the other "insiders" hold a mirror up to Claudio. They want him to realise his lack of profundity and faith. "He [Claudio] is easy prey for Don John precisely because of a deeply ingrained mistrust of his own feelings."[7] At the beginning of the play Claudio, alas, only sees Hero's outward signs such as her beauty, her high social status and her fortune. Ultimately, Claudio realises he was in error when the Watch had informed them about Don John's true self and intentions. (Act 5.1)


[1] Schabert, Ina, Shakespeare Handbuch, Alfred Kröner Verlag, (Stuttgart, 2000), on page 423

[2] Cummings, Michael J.,, (© 2003) Stand: 04.Januar 2008

[3] Dawson, Anthony B. 1982, Much Ado About “Signifying”, Studies in English Literature 1500-1900, (22),, on page 212

[4] Ritter, Ulrich, Montaignes Skeptizismus und dramatisierte Skepsis bei Shakespeare, (Ruhr Universität Bochum, 2003/2004), on page 44

[5] Henze, Richard, Deception in Much Ado about Nothing, Studies in English Literature, 1500-1900, Vol. 11, No. 2, Elizabethan and Jacobean Drama (Spring, 1971), on page 187

[6] compare to: Ritter, 2003/2004, on page 45

[7] Mulryne, J.R., Shakespeare: Much ado about nothing, ed. J.R. Mulryne, (1965), on page 40

Excerpt out of 15 pages


Deception and villainy in Shakespeare's "Much ado about nothing"
University of Hamburg  (IAA)
Literaturseminar: William Shakespeare: „Much ado about nothing“
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ISBN (Book)
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Deception, Shakespeare, Much, Literaturseminar, William, Much ado about nothing, comedy, comedy of manners
Quote paper
Nadine Richters (Author), 2008, Deception and villainy in Shakespeare's "Much ado about nothing", Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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