What 'Much Ado' teaches us about the benefit of the doubt

Marry, sir, they have committed false report; moreover, they have spoken untruths; secondarily, they are slanders; sixth and lastly, they have belied a lady; thirdly, they have verified unjust things; and, to conclude, they are lying knaves. ~ Dogberry, Much Ado 5.1.225

If comedies end in weddings and tragedies end in funerals, Much Ado About Nothing stops by the morgue on its way to the chapel, giving readers and viewers that dose of real life that is a mix of the two. No one gets all comedy. No one lives a total tragedy. As is true with any good work of fiction, Shakespeare has written to entertain us with an exaggerated form of our own realities, with things I can relate to and scenarios that show the discomfort of my own nature. And like Hamlet’s famous line from the play named for him—the play’s the thing wherein I’ll catch the conscience of the king. My conscience is caught by Much Ado. 

Claudio has returned from war and fallen in love with the beautiful Hero. Everything has been set for them to be married, and Claudio is intent on breaking with his fellow soldiers and risking the ridicule of being concerned with feminine things, setting himself up for potential heartache and humility, because everyone in Messina knows women can’t be faithful.  He’s in love, and I can cheer for him because he is man enough to admit it, unlike his friend Benedick who only mockingly longs to be "so converted and see with these eyes”—to fall head-over-heels as Claudio apparently has. Benedick will fall in love, but only when he is tricked into believing that Beatrice, the object of his turmoiled affection, is first in love with him. 

But before the wedding of Claudio and Hero, there is a deception. Claudio is led to believe his bride-to-be has already been untrue, and his instinct is to protect his own pride.  His first response to this gossip is not to question its source, to question Hero, or to believe what he knows of her character and conduct. His response is to believe a lie—to believe what he’s heard and thinks he’s seen.  


In an interview with On Being host Krista Tippett, psychologist Daniel Kahnemen tells about having dinner with his wife and some friends. At home afterwards, as they were getting ready for bed and discussing their evening, Kahneman’s wife said something strange.  She was admiring one of the guests because, as she said, "He doesn’t undress the maid himself.” This shocked her husband, both because of his manly pride and because it was out of character for his wife to say such a thing. Turns out, his first hearing of her was wrong, and after a little investigation he realized she had actually said, "He doesn’t underestimate himself." 

Throughout Much Ado, intentions are misinterpreted, words are twisted, information is gained by eavesdropping, and Claudio becomes a perfect illustration of the folly of jumping to conclusions, as Kahneman was first tempted to do. I am easily deceived when led by my pride, and I too often fail to admit that I may have come to my conclusions through my own misinterpretations. This is what bandwagons were made for, and I jump too quickly to ride along with the flow of whomever may entice me with their version of what is true. 


In her book On Reading Well, Karen Swallow Prior says that “If justice is making right, then seeing people rightly is a form of justice.” Claudio has a history with Hero, but to a man more concerned with his image than with the truth, history means nothing. He publicly shames the innocent Hero on their wedding day to save his own fragile pride, and the shallowness of Claudio’s love, his quick leap to his deceiver’s conclusion, is truly an injustice that only leads to more deception.  

Scripture is full of this kind of deceit, from the serpent to Tamar to Judas Iscariot. What the Bible tells me about human nature is that we are all capable of grand deceptions, and of being tricked by grand deceivers. What Shakespeare tells me, what all good literature shows, is that God is right. Though my senses and perceptions can deceive me, and though I tend to believe what I want to believe and hear what I want to hear, a little investigation goes a long way towards learning the truth. So does a little history, a remembrance of the past. 

Swooning of Hero in the Church  by Alfred Elmore

Swooning of Hero in the Church by Alfred Elmore

Claudio has seen Hero on her balcony in the embrace of another man. He is an eyewitness, and we want no better proof than that of a firsthand account. Claudio’s greatest fear—that women truly can’t be faithful and that he is a fool who falls in love—seems to be confirmed by what his eyes have seen. His public shaming and false accusations of Hero (a sharp contrast to the honorable way Joseph sought to deal with Mary) leads her to fake her own death, but not even her death by heartache can prompt Claudio to reconsider his accusations against her. What he saw mixed just enough truth with deception to convince him that Hero was not faithful, in the same way the serpent mingled truth with a lie to manipulate Eve in the garden.

Had Eve truly weighed what she knew of God’s character and benevolence, she would have reconsidered the serpent's deceptive “Has God indeed said...”, or so I like to think. And had Claudio remembered his history with Hero and not been clouded by his fears, by the “much ado about nothing” in the rumors and traps, he would have dug a little deeper and found the truth of her love and faithfulness. James says we are led away by our own desires and enticed (James 1:14), and Claudio’s desire is first and foremost to protect himself.


The greatest lesson for me in Much Ado About Nothing is that I cannot view the world through my fears and expect to see it clearly. All the possibilities—the mishaps and the dangers and deceptions of the world—have to be outweighed by my belief in a good God who is working in all things and who loved me first. When it comes to the people in my life, I have to give them the benefit of the doubt and believe all things, as 1 Corinthians 13 outlines. Otherwise, I am doomed to live on my misinterpretations of others and my fear of potential evil. 

We can question Shakespeare’s intent but his plays are clearly full of biblical elements, and good literature shows us the truth, goodness, and beauty of even a fallen world. Characters like Dogberry, with his continual malapropisms and innocently backwards sentences, reveal the truth to those who think they are wise. Hero’s life seems to end in her tragic death, but she reappears for a wedding. Deceivers are punished. Mourning turns to celebration. Love allows us to view everything in a new light. From beginning to end, the story is a range of human emotions and reactions. My conscience is pricked by my own distrust and self-protection, but my hope is stirred by the final revelation of truth, by reconciliation, by a wedding.  

The best stories always end in a wedding and a feast. One day we will feast on truth, delight in goodness, and never find an end to beauty, and all of our misinterpretations will ether be set right or completely forgotten in the folds of eternity. In the meantime, may our consciences be caught by stories old and new.