Themes

Quick revise
Social Grace
  • The characters in the play use dense, colourful speech, which represents the ideal that Renaissance courtiers strove for.
  • The play’s language uses metaphor and rhetoric throughout. Benedick, Claudio and Don Pedro all produce the kind of witty banter that courtiers used to attract attention.
  • Courtiers were expected to speak highly contrived language but to make it appear effortless. Benedick and his companions try to display this effortless performance in both their behaviour and language.
  • The play mocks the fanciful love language that courtiers used. For example when Claudio falls in love he tries to be perfect as Benedick notes: “His words are a very fantastical banquet, just so many strange dishes” (II.iii.18–19).
  • Although the young gallants seem casual in their displays they constantly struggle to maintain their social position and Benedick and Claudio strive to remain in Don Pedro's favour.
  • When Claudio agrees to let Don Pedro woo Hero, it is not because Claudio can not but that he must stay in Don Pedro’s favour.
  •  When Claudio believes Don Pedro has deceived him and wooed Hero for himself, he cannot drop his polite civility even though he is enraged. Beatrice jokes that Claudio is “civil as an orange,” punning on the Seville orange, a bitter fruit (II.i.256).
  • Claudio remains quiet and polite despite his upset when he speaks of Don Pedro and Hero: “I wish him joy of her” (II.i.170) Claudio ultimately chooses his obedience to Don Pedro over his love for Hero.
  • Claudio’s social propriety eventually leads him into a trap when he believes Don John and abandons Hero on their wedding day.
  • Obviously Don John’s plans do not work as Claudio remains in Don Pedro’s favour, and Hero has to suffer.
Deception
  • This play is based upon deliberate deception. Some of this deception is explicit whilst others are implicit.
  • The betrayal of Claudio results in Hero’s disgrace whilst her supposed death prepares the way for her reconciliation.
  • In a much more light-hearted way Beatrice and Benedick are deceived into thinking that each loves the other. Ultimately as a result they fall in love.
  • Subsequently the play shows that deception is not always a negative experience and creates love.
  • It is often difficult to decide what is good deception and what is bad deception. When Don Pedro woos Hero, Claudio begins to distrust him believing he has deceived him. As the audiences believe in the illusions of the theatre it becomes apparent that the play’s characters are believing the illusions they create for each other.
  • Benedick and Beatrice flirt at the masked ball however each is aware of the others presence yet they pretend not to know each other, ultimately deceiving themselves and each other.
  • After Claudio has shamed and rejected Hero, Leonato’s household publish her death. That she died to punish Claudio.
  • When Claudio comes to marry Leonato’s niece deception takes place in the institution of marriage, suggesting that the ceremony has little to do with love.
  • Ultimately deception has positive and negative effects – it is a means to the resolution of the play. It is used to create an illusion which allows people to succeed not in love but in social stance.
Honour
  • The wedding ceremony in which Claudio rejects Hero and accuses of her of infidelity ultimately shaming her in front of her father is the play’s climax.
  • In Shakespeare's time a woman's worth was based on her virginity and chaste, for a woman to loose her honour by having sex before marriage ultimately meant that she would loose her social standing, something from which she would never recover.
  • The woman’s shaming would impact the whole family. As a result Leonato attempts to obliterate Hero completely to shield his family from dishonour. “Hence from her, let her die” (IV.i.153)
  • Leonato speaks of a loss of honour and he feels that he cannot escape from this loss of honour and uses the metaphor of a stain which he can not get rid of “O she is fallen / Into a pit of ink, that the wide sea / Hath drops too few to wash her clean again” (IV.i.138–140).
  • Hero’s loss of honour was a form of complete annihilation.
  • For men honour depended on friends and acquaintance in a much more military nature.
  • Men were more able to defend their honour and the honour of his family by fighting.
  • Beatrice wishes for Benedick to avenge Hero’s honour by duelling with Claudio.
  • Hero cannot gain her own honour but Benedick can do it for her.