A Marxist study of Much Ado About Nothing Using the Marxist approach to one of Shakespeare’s comedies, Much Ado About Nothing, this essay deals with the unconscious of the text in order to reveal the ideology of the text (as buried in what is not said) so as to discover the hegemony behind the text. The ideology perpetuated in Much Ado About Nothing revolves around, centrally, ensuring the needs and insecurities of the aristocratic – the need for a patriarchal power, the need to reject, stigmatize and dominate the lower class and women.
According to Elliot Krieger in A Marxist Study of Shakespeare’s Comedies, there is a “primary world” and a “second world” in each of Shakespeare’s comedies. The second world is a location towards which “the characters, hence the action, move” (1). The primary world is the actual location which the characters originally inhabit, while the second world is where the characters escape to. This second world is an alternative to the primary world, a different perspective for the characters to see the objective reality.
It represents a state of mind which “shelters or separates them” in the primary world as the protagonists “circumscribe all of objective reality with their subjectivity” (3). While the protagonists “experience the second world as a retreat, withdrawal, or replacement” releasing their private fancy in this second world, others experience the second world “as a domination, an exhibition of authority” and “a restriction on their own autonomy” (4). In Much Ado About Nothing, the honourable prince Don Pedro and his illegitimate brother, Don John the Bastard, conjure up a second world of their own respectively.
The second world of the former succeeds and sustains itself at the end of the play while that of the latter falls through hopelessly. The success and failure of the two different second worlds demonstrates the fact that “only a protagonist who has social degree, and power, can develop a second world in which personal whims organize the social experience of others, in which the needs of the subject’s ego replace the history of the primary world”(4).
Hence, this Shakespearean comedy has the sole purpose of unconsciously serving the aristocratic in upholding their ideology, an ideology that has in turn become the hegemony for all in society. After the victory of the war in the primary world, Don Pedro arrives at Messina with his troops of soldiers and soon sets up the first “second world” in the play, aiming to “to bring Signor/Benedick and the Lady Beatrice into a mountain of/affection the one with the other” (II. i. 284-287) through the means of deception.
Lady Beatrice, with her quick wits and independent character, often directs her wisdom and outspoken defiance against men: “Would it not grieve a woman to be overmastered with a pierce of valiant dust? ”(II. i. 40-41) Her hatred of the opposite sex, which is most intensely overt in her verbal war with Benedick, unconsciously disturbs men and poses a threat to their virility. Beatrice must not have her waywardness left unruled: “I hope to see you one day fitted with a husband” sighs Leonato (II. i. 37).
Indeed, Don Pedro’s subtle affection for Beatrice can be taken as more than a romantic interlude; it might be an unconscious attempt of the patriarchal ruling class to subjugate the agency of women by marrying them: “Will you have me, Lady? ” (II. i. 252) Beatrice, as an independent and outspoken woman in the primary world, must be objectified and have her freedom forfeited in a man’s hands – if not Don Pedro, then Benedick. This fantasy is to be conducted in the second world – a response to the social condition in the primary world. The taming and exorcizing of the strong woman Beatrice is further expressed in the two instances of gulling.
As proposed by Neely, Don Pedro, Leonato and Claudio “alleviate his (Benedick’s) fears about Beatrice’s aggressiveness by a lengthy, exaggerated tale of her desperate passion for him: ‘Then down upon her knees she falls, weeps, sobs, bears her heart, tears her hair, prays, curses – ‘O sweet Benedick! God give me patience’ (II, iii, 148-50)” (146). Such account “dovetails perfectly with his fantasy that all women (even the aggressive Beatrice) dote on him” and “gratifies”, most importantly, the male readers’ desire to “picture the disdainful Beatrice in this helpless state” (Neely, 146).
The women’s gulling of Beatrice, on the contrary, make only one “unembroidered mention of Benedick’s love for her, even that is interrogative – ‘But are you sure/That Benedick Beatrice’s’(III, i, 36-7)” (Neely, 146). They “praise his (Benedick) virtues, not Beatrice’s” and assault heavily on the pride of Beatrice, “deflating rather than bolstering her self-esteem” (Neely, 146). These two instances of gulling, which bolster the authenticity of the second world of Don Pedro, manage also to exorcise and suppress the power of women in deflating Beatrice.
The second world led by Don Pedro must succeed in replacing the primary world (where Benedick is verbally attacked by Beatrice) because he is the man with the highest social standing in the play. The hegemony reigns in as the subjectivity of Don Pedro becomes the experience of the others – the two instances of gulling edging closer and closer to honesty. The second world of Don Pedro and that of Don John share a foremost function to exorcize women as men harbor an unconscious fear to be subject to women’s sexual power.
To Benedick and the male protagonists, love can lead to “humiliation and loss of potency…a castrating torture” (Neely, 144). To defend themselves, men “deny its possibility through idealization”, as in the idealization of Hero into a perfect and innocent virgin, “anticipate it through misogyny”, as expressed in the strong Beatrice, or “transform it, through the motif of cuckoldry” (Neely, 141), as in the second world of Don John. (In the second world of Don John, deception is employed to slander Hero and defame her honour.
Its destruction goes as far as providing an unconscious imaginary land for men to relieve their fears about women, suggesting their sadistic desire to attack women so as to affirm their virility. After being publicly shamed, Hero can do nothing but swoon; Beatrice also suffers in great frustration; as she feels the constraints of a woman, she cries: “Is he not approved in the height a villain, that/hath slandered, scorned, dishonoured my kinswoman? O/that I were a man! …O God, that I were a man! I would eat his heart” (IV. i. 212-214).
Masculinity is portrayed as an exclusive power possessed only by the men who could fight back in the face of injustice. ) Marriage not only ends the war between Benedick and Beatrice but also maintains the purity of the blood of the upper class. During the time when the play was written, it was unlikely for one, especially a woman of the lower class, to marry one’s social status up. The concept of marriage between members of the same class is unconsciously promoted so that the blood of the lower class would not enter and stain that of the upper class.
In granting the consent to Claudio to marry his daughter Hero, Leonato comments, “his grace hath made the match” (II, i, 232); being asked to marry Don Pedro, Beatrice refuses by asserting that his grace is “too costly to wear” (II, i, 252); in deceiving Claudio to believe that Don Pedro has wooed Hero for himself, Don John the bastard disapproves of such match as Hero “is no equal for his birth” (II, i, 144). It is important for one to marry a member of the same league. Marriage, which subjects women to men’s power and control, can also prevent the elevation of social standing of the lower class, which could prevent the ower class’ ‘robbery’ of the fortunes of the upper class. As a “good soldier to a lady” (I, i, 43), Benedick could marry off with a pretty woman of a lower social standing. He is denied this when Don Pedro ensures his marriage with Beatrice. Though the second world of Don Pedro produces an “abstract moral condition such as ‘harmony’ or ‘concord’, beneficial to all of the characters’” (Krieger, 5), its success sacrifices the autonomy of Beatrice, the freedom of Benedick and annihilates the possibility of an inter-class marriage which could reward either Beatrice or Benedick.
This is also why the second world created by Don John is doomed to fail. Don John is a figure who has no respected or recognized social status. As an illegitimate brother to Don Pedro, he is no different from a parasite attached to his princely brother for economic subsistence and respect, as Leonato remarks upon receiving Don John, “Let me bid you welcome, my lord: being reconciled to/the prince your brother, I owe you all duty” (I, i, 117-118). Don John has Leonato owned his “all duty” only because he himself has “reconciled to” Don Pedro the prince. Despite being a ‘prince’, Don John is still referred as the “bastard”.
The failure of his second world, which consists of slandering the virgin Hero, is an assurance that the illegitimate will never succeed in entering the league or upsetting the status quo of the legitimate upper class. The ideology of class distinction remains as people opt for a potential marital partner according to one’s social standing. The presence of Don John also serves as a living warning for the upper class that any illegitimate intercourse with the lower class may breed a potential malice in the future, that is the devilish Don John in the play.
The lower class must be rejected by the upper class, especially in terms of marriage. The repulsion of inter-class marriage is further testified in Margaret being one of the accomplices of this valiancy in disgracing Hero. As the chamber-maid of Hero, Margaret pretends to be Hero and gets tempted by Borachio, with whom she has sex. Her lust is a testimony to the immorality of the lower class, who cannot command their own desires. In Shakespeare’s era, a woman with her honour lost would lose all her social standing.
Compared to the public shaming of Hero, the absence of a punishment to Margaret’s loss of honour might also reflect the insignificance of the lower class. The lower class is free to do whatever they want as they are left in the gutter, while the upper class must watch their code of behaviour carefully so as not to fall into depravity. The promiscuity of Margaret also reinforces the depraved nature of the lower class which justifies the impossibility of an inter-class marriage which would otherwise pollute the blood of the upper class.
The lower class is exorcised as it is presented to be depraved while the upper class remains virtuous in the purity of Hero. The second world of Don John fails soon after the truth about the gulling is made known to Leonato. Although the gulling is brought to light by Dogberry the policeman of the middle class, Don Pedro is the one who derives valuable answers from the villain Borachio to discover the truth of the villainy. With fluent articulation, Don Pedro forms the significant question, “Who have you offended, masters, that you are thus/bound to your answer?… what’s your offence? ” (V. . 168-169) while Dogberry, the “learned constable…too cunning to be understood” (V. i. 168-169) fails to retrieve meaningful answers in his previous instances of interrogation due to his eccentric and wry use of language. His function works no more than exercising the labour to arrest and transfer the villain to the authority. Under arrest, Borachio only makes his confession to Don Pedro as he recounts, “Sweet prince, let me go no farther to mine answer:…I have/deceived even your very eyes: what your wisdoms/could not discover, these shallow fools have brought/to light” (V. i. 171-176).
The ideology that aristocratic class holds the key to settling disputes and injustice permeates and they hold the legitimacy to rule the community. Contrary to a traditional reading of the play, the Marxist approach involves a close analysis of the minor character Don Pedro and also the absence of certain events, such as the punishment of Margaret, as well as the displaced rage of Beatrice. The “development of a second world” in Shakespearean comedies “manifests aristocratic privilege”. In fact, the “second world functions as an ideological system” and “hide[s] class struggle” (Kriger, 6).
The struggle presented in the play is the disturbed power relation between men and women, upper class and lower class. The success of the second world of Don Pedro, who belongs to the aristocratic, replaces the social conditions of the primary world which is previously upset by the dominance of Beatrice and the intrusion of Don John the bastard. The hegemony, which is the second world, is set up by Don Pedro and is privileged to remain as the objective reality in the new primary world of both the aristocratic and the lower class.