English Literature


We have already looked at one aspect of language - in the section on character we saw how you could use short quotations as evidence.

Using quotations

We might want to say Don John is an aggressive and angry character. We can then support this view by looking at his language. He says that if he had a mouth he "would bite", and that he only has his unhappiness to make use of.

Here we are using two ways to provide evidence: words that are directly from the play are put in quotation marks, for example, "I am a plain-dealing villain." The second way is to describe what is said in your own words, for instance, Don John plans to stop Claudio's marriage to Hero. It is often good to combine these methods, perhaps quoting just one word from the play. For instance, Don John despises Claudio and calls him a "start-up" (an 'upstart' in modern English).

The one thing you should avoid is using a long quotation. Many students write out whole chunks of the play. This is just like retelling the story - there is no reason for it, and you will not get any marks for it.

Shakespeare's technique

We can also deal with language in Much Ado About Nothing by looking at the techniques Shakespeare used. Some of these techniques (and names) might seem difficult at first. If that is the case, just think about what the play would sound like if the technique was not used. For instance, when Claudio is rejecting Hero at the church, imagine he says to Leonato:

"Take this woman back"

Well, yes, it is easy to understand, but it is not unusual or interesting. And it does not show how bitter Claudio is. So instead, he says:

"Give not this rotten orange to your friend"

The "rotten orange" is Hero. Claudio is talking about her as if she is beautiful on the outside but decayed inside - she has turned bad but no-one has seen this yet. Claudio's words are unusual, but the audience can immediately relate to them and remember his ideas. So if you are not too sure of a technique, remove it and compare the two versions - what effect does Shakespeare's technique have on you?

Use of imagery

Shakespeare uses imagery a lot in Much Ado About Nothing. Imagery is when we might talk about one thing in terms of another. So Benedick is described as if he were a "disease" which Claudio has caught - he will "hang upon him", make Claudio "mad" and cost a huge amount of money to "be cured". Imagery substitutes one thing for another in three main ways:

Similes - when a direct comparison is made (with 'as', 'than' or 'like'). Benedick says he "was duller than a great thaw", while Borachio compares fashion-conscious men to soldiers and priests. These ideas allow us our own interpretations. Is fashion like being in the army and being told what to wear - or everyone looking the same?

Metaphors - when one thing is called something else, such as Claudio calling Hero a "jewel". If he had said she is "like a jewel" it would be a simile. But he says she actually is "a jewel", so it is a metaphor. Think about the qualities of a jewel: it is valuable, beautiful and rare. Then think about how Claudio views Hero - is she something to admire and possess, rather than someone to love?

Personification - where something is described as if it is human. Beatrice talks about how a "star danced", and Leonato says "happiness takes his leave".

Wit and repetition

Another technique Shakespeare uses is the pun. A lot of jokes are puns: a play on words using words that sound similar but have different meanings. So, when Beatrice says Claudio is "civil as an orange", she plays on the similarity between 'civil' and 'Seville'. He is either polite or bitter (like the oranges from Seville).

Repartee is when characters give quick, witty replies. We see this most often with Beatrice and Benedick. For instance, when they argue in Act 1, Scene 1, they are able to twist the other person's words around. And both want to have the final word.

Repetition is also used frequently in Much Ado About Nothing. Repeating a word or phrase draws attention to it. For instance, in Act 5, Scene 2, Beatrice says:

"Foul words is but foul wind, and foul wind is but foul breath"

The word 'foul' is repeated six times in just three lines. This is not by accident. Shakespeare is drawing attention to how unhappy Beatrice is. Another way of repeating ideas is to use lists, such as Benedick in Act 3, Scene 2 talking of a Dutchman, Frenchman, German and Spaniard.

Opposites and verse structure

Opposites are also used frequently. They highlight the conflicts in the story between men and women, truth and lies, or being single and getting married. There are lots of examples. One of the clearest is Beatrice's explanation for not getting married (in Act 2, Scene 1):

"He that hath a beard is more than a youth: and he that hath no beard is less than a man: and he that is more than a youth, is not for me. and he that is less than a man, I am not for him"

Another way of looking at the language of Much Ado About Nothing is to examine the lines. Shakespeare used different patterns of lines for different effects. Some are written in blank verse, so they have ten syllables which are organised in five pairs. The first syllable is weak, the second stronger. So if we look at a typical line, we traditionally show the weak or unstressed syllable with an 'x' above it, and the stressed syllable with an '/' above it. In this example Claudio is saying goodbye to Hero:

    x    /    x    /    x    /    x    /    x    /

But fare thee well, most foul, most fair, farewell

Reading it like this, we can hear an obvious beat. We can also see that the key words tend to be stronger and carry more meaning. They also seem to sum up Claudio's contradictory views of his rejected bride: fare - well - foul - fair - well.

Using language in your answer

Most tasks allow you to write or talk about how language is used in the play. So imagine your title is: 'How does Beatrice change during the course of Much Ado About Nothing?' There are all sorts of references you can make to language:

When we first meet Beatrice, she seems to be a clever, independent woman. She speaks openly, not waiting to be asked, and seems to like making fun of Benedick in particular. She compares him with "a disease", and her repartee makes even the messenger afraid of her. Throughout the play she uses puns, such as saying Claudio is "civil as an orange". This shows her witty nature, because she plays on the similarity between "civil" and "Seville": he is either polite or bitter (just like the oranges from Seville).

This combines much of what we have covered so far. It starts to answer the question without filling up the page with irrelevant facts, plot details and fancy technical terms. Remember, you do not have to tick off the language terms like a trainspotter. Instead, show you appreciate some of the techniques Shakespeare used, and the effects they have on his audience.

Back to Revision Bite