In Much Ado About Nothing, Shakespeare presents parallel amorous predicaments which prove Hamlet’s assertion that “there is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.” (Hamlet, II,ii,249-50) Or, as American Tibetan Buddhist nun Thubten Chodron puts it in the title of her 2013 book, Don’t Believe Everything You Think. In both cases, the characters rely on or allow outside opinions and input to influence and change their actions and beliefs, without hesitation or internal inquiry.
In the first case, the young lord Claudio falls for and woos the Governor of Messina, Leonato’s, young and pure daughter, Hero. Their courtship, falling out, and reconciliation transpire via the usual Shakespearean techniques of disguise, trickery, and subterfuge.
The wooing and making up are amusing. But the intervening break up is most significant and disturbing. Hero falls from both her fiancee Claudio’s and her father Leonato’s good graces at the hands – or more aptly at the words – of the malicious malcontent Don John, bastard brother of Prince Don Pedro (what is it with these Shakespearean bastards?).
His mystifying, Machiavellian malice aforethought brings to mind Iago’s plotting against Desdemona and Othello with a handkerchief. He concocts circumstances to make his brother, Claudio, and Leonato “see” Hero as a promiscuous harlot rather than the virginal bride that she is: “the lady is disloyal,” asserts Don John (III,ii,104).
Despite years of history, intimate familiarity, and testimony to the contrary — and despite knowing full well what a conniving misanthrope Don John is — once accused, neither Don Pedro, Claudio, or worst of all her own father Leonato, contemplate nor hesitate for a moment to condemn her. They examine neither the accusation nor the evidence, nor do they give her or her supporters any chance to stage a defense. No fair trial here, only speedy conviction. Claudio refuses to marry her: “Not knit myself to an approved wanton.” (IV,i,44).
Her own father instantaneously believes the accusations and shifts quickly from unconditional paternal love, “Death is the fairest cover for her shame/That may be wish’d for.” (IV,i,115-6), as she swoons after being so wrongly accused. Rather than question the accusers, he lets the seed they plant in his mind blossom and grow like the carnivorous plant in Little Shop of Horrors, and wishes not only for her death, but that she weren’t an only child and that she were actually not even his own, but “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.'” (IV,i,132-4).
When the comical constable Dogberry and his merry men reveal Don John and Borachio’s trechery, and hence Hero’s innocence, Leonato again turns on a dime to support his daughter. Yet he shows little, if any, regret about his initial rash reaction.
The second couple, Benedick and Beatrice, compete to outdo each others’ displays of mutual disdain in a titillating match of wits. It’s obvious to everyone but them that they are a perfect match for one another. Their cohort contrives to convince them so with more convoluted coercion. Despite their heels being dug firmly into their reciprocal detestation, they both flip flop like a tossed coin and see only the obverse side land. Once sworn enemies and bachelors, they, too, quickly change their tunes and turn toward love and each other upon “overhearing” their comrades’ fabricated and cleverly staged reports of their professed love for one another. Both soften as they hear what they believe to be rumor of the other’s affection. Benedick does an immediate U turn:
“Doth not the appetite alter? A man loves/the meat in his youth that he cannot endure in his/age. Shall quips and sentences and these paper/bullets of the brain awe a man from the career of/his humor?” (II,iii,238-42).
Beatrice, too, slams quickly into reverse: “Benedick, love on, I will requite thee,/Taming my wild heart to thy loving hand.” (III,i,111-2). Nothing more than a few words convinced them both to lay down their arms and clasp hands in love and Hero’s defense.
In Much Ado About Nothing, the characters follow Rene Descartes’ 17th century assertion, “I think, therefore I am.” They allow their thoughts to form their selves. They ought, instead, to reverse that particular thought to “I am, therefore I think.” This latter approach illustrates the Buddhist notion that we are not our thoughts (which they liken to waves), but the thinker or consciousness (which they equate with the ocean).
Claudio, Leonato, Don Pedro – and Benedick and Beatrice – would have done well to sit in quiet contemplation of each situation before acting, as they, and we all do, on impulse. The latter certainly makes for a much more action-filled and amusing play, but the former would make for a more fulfilling and contented existence.