Love as Misunderstood in Much Ado About Nothing and A Midsummer Night’s Dream: Foolish Interpretation of Love Explored and Exposed
by David Schlachter
“Love is merely a madness, and I tell you, deserves as well … as madmen do.” (Shakespeare, “As You Like It” 3.2. 390–392) Indeed, love in Shakespeare’s comedies is characterized by all the caprice and chaos of madness, yet forms the foundation of societal order. However, in attempting to impose a deterministic order on love, Don Pedro in Much Ado About Nothing and Oberon in A Midsummer Night’s Dream ensure disaster by not allowing those in their care to develop freely. As leaders, their shallow understanding of love jeopardizes the relationships they seek to mend, creates chaos, hatred and societal decay, and is finally exposed through the chaotic intervention of fools. As Dogberry defuses the disaster precipitated by Don Pedro, so Robin repairs Oberon’s scheme. Only through fools is the foolishness of these leaders exposed, disaster averted and a deeper understanding obtained.
Upon discerning Claudio’s affection for Hero, Don Pedro decides that he “will break with her, and with her father, / And [Claudio] shalt have her.” (Shakespeare, “Much Ado” 1.1. 292–293) Don Pedro assumes that the realization of Claudio’s affection—Claudio’s love—can be fulfilled by proxy; he assumes that he can form a stable relationship from Claudio’s doting. Indeed, he asserts: “Cupid is no longer an archer; his glory shall be ours, for we are the only love-gods.” (Shakespeare, “Much Ado” 2.1. 361–363) Don Pedro presumes to usurp the ability to form societal order and essentially asserts his supposed omnipotence in the public sphere; his confidence in his powers over love are unsettling. However, he fails to understand that love is not deterministic; love requires genuine sacrifice and effort on the part of those involved. Don Pedro, an outsider to Claudio and Hero’s budding relationship, believes that the foundation of love may be replaced by its capstone: he denies the relationship the opportunity to grow and flourish, thus severely weakening it.
Having discovered Demetrius and Helena’s conflict, Oberon directs Puck to “anoint [Demetrius’] eyes; / …. / … that he may prove / More fond on her than she upon her love.” (Shakespeare, “Midsummer” 2.1. 261–266) Oberon assumes that their conflict may be externally resolved, that a barrier to their love may be removed independent of their relationship. By attempting to remove their conflict, Oberon denies them the opportunity for development and a deeper understanding. Only through the test of their love can their love develop, and by denying them the test he denies them the product of love, thus undermining their relationship by his intended deterministic resolution.
Beyond threatening Claudio’s relationship, Don Pedro’s attempted resolution effectively destroys it: Claudio, entirely unacquainted with Hero, falls spectacularly to Don John’s treachery: “In the congregation where I should wed, there will I shame her.” (Shakespeare, “Much Ado” 3.2. 116–117) Gough accuses Claudio of “[proving] painfully eager to name the secret filth he believes Hero attempts to hide,” (57) demonstrating Claudio’s utter misunderstanding. The shaming of Hero, besides damaging Claudio and Hero’s relationship, turns Claudio against Benedick, destroys Hero’s reputation and her father’s hope for her, sours Beatrice, and discredits Don Pedro himself. Though seeking to repair a relationship, Don Pedro’s incompetence and pretension instead cause the antithesis of the societal order he seeks: instead of a stable relationship, he causes hatred and chaos.
Oberon’s plan prevents introspection in the lovers and incites reactionary chaos; far from becoming a place of understanding and reconciliation, the forest incubates and exposes hatred, jealousy and senseless desire. Introducing the flower robs Demetrius of his independent emotional self rather than reconciling him with Helena. Unable to act save out of desire, Demetrius is unable to act in love and resolution and is instead forced to cause and suffer from conflict. Oberon’s interference prevents the resolution to the conflict he attempts to resolve. Instead, the lovers are “propelled by irrational forces they barely comprehend, if at all,” (Halio, 411) and ultimately Oberon’s effort “compounds error and disturbance.” (Nevo, 58)
Don Pedro, failing to bring about development in Claudio and Hero’s relationship and instead destroying it, is unable to restore societal order. Only through Dogberry’s intervention can resolution be attained. Dogberry’s exposition of Don John’s villainy allows Claudio the opportunity to change. Having “drunk poison whiles [Dogberry] uttered,” (Shakespeare, “Much Ado” 5.1. 239) Claudio is compelled to confront the shallowness of his love for Hero. His turmoil and anguish move him to exclaim, “Yet sinned I not / But in mistaking,” (Ibid., 5.1. 267–268) in Cole’s words, “underscor[ing] his repentance and his forgiveness.” (Cole, 494) His remorse leads to introspection, clearly evidenced by his epitaph to Hero. Though he has not conquered all challenges to their love, Claudio experiences real development and shows every sign of continuing to do so. Dogberry, despite his inability to form a sentence, becomes a powerful and unassuming moving force: whereas Don Pedro assumes, by his rank and social standing, that he can shape and resolve love, Dogberry is the more powerful agent. By his foolishness and lack of pretension, Dogberry clearly exposes the weakness of Don Pedro’s suppositions. His foolery, and acknowledgement of such, condemns Don Pedro’s foolishness and grants Claudio a better chance and brighter hope for his relationship with Hero.
Like Don Pedro, Oberon is unable to resolve the conflict which he has caused. Attempting to resolve a conflict by masking it, he negates development and weakens the lovers’ relationships. Robin’s foolery engenders exaggerated conflict betwixt the lovers, trying their love and allowing them opportunities for growth. Having endured Robin’s torment, the lovers awake reconciled: their love refined, petty doting is consumed by their deeper understanding of the meaning and trial of love. Oberon’s shallow appeals to a deterministic force to solve the conflicts of the lovers cannot grasp the need for human resolution—the struggle to overcome, not to avoid the struggle. Robin’s chaotic foolery encourages—rather than suppresses—the personal trial of love. Only through Robin’s foolery is real understanding and reconciliation obtained, and the untenability of Oberon’s understanding revealed: indeed, Oberon is revealed the fool.
The shallow understanding of Don Pedro and Oberon nearly destroys the relationships they seek to mend: their failure to allow those in their care to freely develop undermines the foundations of love, and destroys the social order they seek to attain. Only the intervention of fools can bring reconciliation and true understanding. Rosalind asserts that love deserves the treatment of a madman, but as Shakespeare’s fools make clear, love must be left to its own devices, to grow, to be tried, and to flourish.
Cole, David W. “Much Ado About Nothing.” The Greenwood Companion to Shakespeare. Ed. Joseph Rosenblum. Vol. 2. Santa Barbara, California: Greenwood Press, 2005. 478–501. Print
Gough, Melinda J. “‘Her filthy feature open showne’ in Ariosto, Spenser, and Much Ado about Nothing.” SEL Studies in English Literature 1500–1900 39.1 (1999): 41–67. Print.
Halio, Jay L. “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.” The Greenwood Companion to Shakespeare. Ed. Joseph Rosenblum. Vol. 2. Santa Barbara, California: Greenwood Press, 2005. 398–427. Print.
Nevo, Ruth. “Fancy’s Images.” Modern Critical Interpretations: William Shakespeare’s `A Midsummer Night’s Dream’. Ed. Harold Bloom. New York: Chelsea House Publishers, 1987. 57–72. Print.
Shakespeare, William. A Midsummer-Night’s Dream. Ed. Arthur Quiller-Couch and John Dover Wilson. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1924. Print.
—. As You Like It. Ed. Arthur Quiller-Couch and John Dover Wilson. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1926. Print.
—. Much Ado About Nothing. Ed. Arthur Quiller-Couch and John Dover Wilson. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1923. Print.