Much Ado About Nothing can be seen as a politically driven play which Shakespeare uses to express his thoughts about society in the late sixteenth century. He uses various methods of comedy to explore his views; satire features prominently within the play in order to ridicule many of the social and political conventions that Shakespeare looks to expose. Many of the messages Shakespeare delivers within the play derive from characters that make the audience laugh; this prevents the message being met with criticism and allows the audience to process what Shakespeare is trying to say, so that through the medium of comedy we can see serious issues explored.
One of Shakespeare’s fundamental messages within the play surrounds the history of male dominance and the ability of women to challenge the established hierarchy. Shakespeare looks to question this gender issue by presenting the main female character as somewhat controversial; her personality does not match sixteenth century expectations of a female. She is both independent and tenacious, demonstrating her capabilities to challenge the male characters in the play. In fact she exceeds many of them. The first scene in the play sets the platform and serves to make the audience aware of the characteristics Beatrice possesses. In an encounter between Beatrice and the messenger, Shakespeare presents comedy through her witty responses. Her first enquiry ‘I pray you, is Signor Mountanto returned from the wars or no?’ (line reference) shows her making a carefully targeted joke about Benedick indicating that she is both playful and not afraid to think of herself as equal to men. The significance of her remark being treated as benevolent allows the audience to display their acceptance. Shakespeare raises the idea of women being disadvantaged by their gender and links this to their desire for equality. In Act 4, when Hero is unjustly brought to shame, an abhorrent Beatrice turns to Benedick and denounces Claudio saying ‘O God, that I were a man! I would eat his heart in the market place’ (4.1.304). In Elizabethan times the audience would have been shocked by her use of blasphemy, which is continued by her graphic use of language and employment of violent imagery. Not only does this symbolize her disgust at her position of helplessness in society but her frustration that she is physically incapable of seeing justice done. Shakespeare’s inclusion of blasphemy would provoke a thoughtful response from the audience and allows his message about female repression to be strongly reinforced when stated.
Much Ado About Nothing is also a play that considers the relationships between men both in war and at peace. At the outset of the play, Shakespeare establishes a fraternal relationship for the audience; Don Pedro ‘hath bestowed much honour’ on Claudio, Benedick ‘hath done good service’, and he is ‘in the company of the right noble Claudio’. In Elizabethan times men relied on their birthplace as a cornerstone for the beginning of friendships; however, this does not prove a problem for these men, who are united not by their geography, but by their experience on the battlefield. Don Pedro is from Aragon, Claudio a young Florentine, and Benedick from Padua. Yet, as the play unfolds, the bonds that unite them soon become strained by the acts of the vindictive Don John and the bond of fraternity is threatened. His first line ‘I thank you. I am not a man of many words, but I thank you’ (1.1.23) indicates to the audience that he is unlikely to contribute much to the comical performance; his tone is somewhat serious, implying that his character will be involved in the ensuing complication. Don John as the ‘bastard’ brother is born out of wedlock and his reputation and circumstances of birth are never forgotten. In the Elizabethan era illegitimacy would be a controversial issue for Shakespeare to raise as it