Characters overhearing conversations not meant for their ears or witnessing private moments not meant for their eyes is what drives the plot of William Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing. This is an idea almost any human being can relate to. We have all likely found ourselves in a situation where we have overheard a private conversation, seen something we should not have seen, or gossiped about someone and been overheard. Generally speaking, eavesdropping is frowned upon and not much good will come of it. While we can see that familiar negative side of eavesdropping in Much Ado About Nothing, there are circumstances where characters benefit from this practice.
Some of the first instances of eavesdropping can be found in the beginning of Act II during the masked ball. Beatrice makes several rude comments about Benedick while they are dancing together, although it is unclear whether or not she actually does not recognize him beneath the mask or if she is simply pretending not to. His teasing manner and the reference he makes to someone saying something negative about her might indicate to Beatrice that it is in fact Benedick. Beatrice says of Benedick:
“Why, he is the prince’s jester: a very dull fool;
only his gift is in devising impossible slanders:
none but libertines delight in him; and the
commendation is not in his wit, but in his villany;
for he both pleases men and angers them, and then
they laugh at him and beat him.”
Her heated remarks about Benedick may be her way of getting back at him; she knows that he cannot become offended by the remarks, lest he give up his disguise, and that not being able to exercise a witty comeback will bother him. This instance of eavesdropping is a negative one; whether she meant for him to hear it or not, Beatrice has still acted maliciously, and Benedick has suffered for his eavesdropping, so to speak, by hearing offensive comments about himself.
Another instance of eavesdropping at the ball occurs when Claudio “overhears” a comment meant for Benedick. Don John knows the masked man is Claudio as Borachio has just told him, “And that is Claudio. I know him by his bearing” (II.i.132). Don John addresses Claudio and asks, “Are not you Signor Benedick?” (II.i.133) to which Claudio responds, “You know me well. I am he” (II.i.134). Don John lies to Claudio, addressing him as Benedick, and says:
“Signior, you are very near my brother in his love:
he is enamoured on Hero; I pray you, dissuade him
from her: she is no equal for his birth: you may
do the part of an honest man in it.”
Claudio pays the price for pretending to be Benedick. Claudio remarks, “And trust no agent; for beauty is a witch / Against whose charms faith melteth into blood” (II.i.150-151). He is now under the impression that not only has Don Pedro betrayed him, but that the woman he loves is no longer his.
In Act II, scene iii, Don Pedro, Leonato, and Claudio, in an attempt to trick Benedick into realizing his feelings for Beatrice, speak loudly about Beatrice’s love for Benedick so that he will overhear them. At first, Benedick is skeptical, but Don Pedro’s participation in the trick convinces him. Benedick says to himself, “I should think this a gull, but that the / white-bearded fellow speaks it: knavery cannot, / sure, hide himself in such reverence” (II.iii.97-99). He could not imagine a respectable man like Don Pedro playing a joke on him. Their trick works, and Benedick is flattered by Beatrice’s supposed love for him. Benedick remarks, “Love me? Why, it must be requited!” (II.iii.187-188). He begins to think she might not be so bad after all and his feelings about her (and marriage) suddenly change. He says, of his past comments about marriage, “I may chance have some odd quirks and remnants/ of wit broken on me because I have railed so long against / marriage, but doth not the appetite alter?” (II.iii.207-209). Over all, I would say that this instance of eavesdropping has a positive result. Benedick is jubilant about his newfound feelings for Beatrice, and he begins to behave more kindly towards her and in general.
Thus far in my reading of the play, I have seen mostly negative aspects of eavesdropping. Benedick may benefit from eavesdropping, but one must remember that that whole scenario was set up and that it is hardly even a proper example of eavesdropping. Eavesdropping can lead to miscommunication and misconceptions as I have a feeling I will see later in the play.