Messina is a place where people find it hard to behave with appropriate seriousness and in William Shakespeare’s well known play “Much Ado About Nothing” the most important ‘character’ in the play is in fact, Messina itself, detailing as it does a Shakespearean comic world, by nature light hearted, witty, optimistic and destined for a ‘happy’ outcome for its trials. Yet Messina also deals with serious matters. Love, the impediments to love, and the pain that must be reconciled before love can be confessed, reciprocated, and fulfilled, are all a part of life in Messina.
All of Shakespeare’s great comedies explore in one way or another the problems of being serious in a society ruled by laws of comedy and it is this concept that we relate to in the world of “Much Ado About Nothing”. In this witty and light-hearted play there are verbal jokes, puns and forms of word play which the characters deliberately employ in their zest for life and there are practical jokes and tricks of varying levels of seriousness which the characters also play on one another.
One of the most successful jokes is the parallel practical jokes played on Beatrice and Benedick in order to trick them into admitting their love for each other and as long as sensitive feelings and serious fates are not too much at stake, which they are not in this successful Beatrice and Benedick practical joke, these deceptions can be justified.
However the social hierarchy of Messina is a very class conscious one and although most of the inhabitants of Messina are witty as a full time occupation and most of this tragic-comedic life consists of various characters playing practical jokes and tricks on each other, underpinning life in Messina is a strict adherence to a code of social conduct. The world of “Much Ado About Nothing”, which is so energetically presented to us in the opening scenes, is in many ways attractive.
It is busy, lively, witty, teasing, socially animated and entertaining. It almost seems like a perfect place to live, but in other ways this society is also brittle and fragile, exposed to treacherous misrepresentations and too much at the mercy of slander, malice and abuse. Vindictive lies and deceptions can ruin this perfect society in a second, because the majority of the characters lack both trust and faith in themselves and those around them.
In order to sustain its collective social code, Messina must trust itself and have good cause to do so, but we are shown through the vagaries of life that it cannot afford to do this and the realities of love and jealousy plunge this society into the depths of seriousness that its gossipy social manners cannot cope with. If we look at the world of Messina in this way, we shall find the explanation for the dominant place of Beatrice and Benedick and understand the shallow relationship of Claudio and Hero and the reasons why this society could so easily accept the devastation that pulls it apart.
Messina is a deeply convention-bound society. For all its bantering and convivial surface and easy, informal exchange of dialogue between figures of differing social rank, the rigour of social and moral custom makes itself felt when serious matters are concerned. A clear sense of honour and prestige extends consistently throughout the play. The wooing of Hero by proxy is a Messinian game, but clearly it is also an advantage for Claudio to have his cause supported by a Prince. On the other hand, if this same Prince prefers his own claims, there is nothing that Claudio can do about it.
Courtship and wedding are socially governed events, and honour depends on strict obedience to the rules. Above all else the bride must be a spotless virgin. Love is a matter of feelings, but these feelings are channelled through prescribed conventional speech. Messina’s free-and-easy ways are on the surface. Underpinning them is a strict role play of language, convention and ritual and driving this role play is eavesdropping, instant gossip and inaccuracy, exemplified in its citizens’ inordinate desire to eavesdrop on the conversations of others.
We witness the Prince and Claudio talking in private, and not a moment passes before Antonio’s man passes on this news, complete with his own spin on what he has just heard, which gives us instant gossip. Antonio’s man has not waited a moment in passing on the news, because it is only a minute or so of stage-time since we heard this conversation ourselves, and already it is at the third stage of transmission from ear to ear around Messina. Inaccuracy is the norm in Messina and Antonio’s ‘good sharp fellow’ gets it wrong, mistaking the Prince’s promise of proxy courtship for intentions of his own.
Nothing comes of this particular incident, but it shows the shape of things to come. The minor error perpetrated by Antonio’s man is an early sign of a society which is deeply vulnerable to deception and misreporting. However there is one thing in Leonato’s response which is not characteristic of Messina. His reluctance to give the story immediate and wholehearted belief, ‘Hath the fellow any wit that told you this? ’ shows him here to be circumspect, which is unusual because Messina is not in general a place which bothers to think twice before believing things.