A Role of Rhetoric in Much Ado About Nothing

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The Rhetoric of Pathos in William Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing

Since the times of Ancient Greece, rhetorical appeals and arguments play an integral role in the development of interpersonal opinions and beliefs. The Ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle defines in Rhetoric that these rhetorical techniques that one can use in order to sway the beliefs of others consist of three varieties of appeals: logos, ethos, and pathos. Logos appeals to logical reason while ethos appeals to an established credibility that a speaker might already possess. Pathos, on the other hand, addresses emotional states and attempts to persuade the audience to certain actions through inciting the audience into a certain emotional predisposition. Iterations of these forms of rhetorical appeals appear frequently in later literary works that found inspiration in Aristotle’s explanation of these rhetorical devices, particularly in the case of pathos because of the emotional basis of its functions. In his comedy Much Ado About Nothing, the English playwright William Shakespeare employed pathos as a method of reaching out to the audience and driving forward the play’s plot through appeals of pathos between characters on the stage. The complicated romantic relationship between the figures Benedick and Beatrice, for instance, is a rich example of William Shakespeare’s literary usage of rhetorical pathos in the context of his plays to move characters between emotional states and to provide dramatic motivations to their actions. This essay will parse through the pathos present in the interactions and attempts of emotional manipulation between Benedick and Beatrice in order to illustrate how effectively or ineffectively William Shakespeare manifested Aristotle’s rhetorical pathos in intimate interactions between his characters through the comedic setting of Much Ado About Nothing.

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Pathos, despite the fact that it would seem to be a rather simple subject involving emotional appeals, which one would assume to be illogical and without much form, possesses on the contrary far greater nuances and argumentative mechanics as Aristotle describes the form in Rhetoric. Pathetic appeal, as it appears in its classical manifestation, must occur in a systematic fashion so that there would be a more likely chance of such an appeal being successful in inspiring an audience to take action in accordance with the desires of the speaker. Aristotle explains that there are three fundamental principles for which one must account in the employment of emotional appeals in formal speech in order to better understand how to successfully execute a rhetorical appeal through pathos. Outside of the political or argumentative contexts, pathos can appear as a plot devise in examples of literature. These sequential three steps of successful appeal through pathos appear extensively in William Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing in the interactions between the figures Benedick and Beatrice throughout the course of the entire play.

One can witness such a systematic utilization of these three fundamental components of a pathetic appeal in Act 2, Scene 3 of Much Ado About Nothing in the scene’s dialogue between Beatrice and Benedick. The first step, as Aristotle communicates in Rhetoric, is for the speaker to establish a specific state of mind that he or she wishes to invoke in the desired audience for an effective emotional appeal. Beatrice goes forth to state to Benedick, “Against my will I am sent to bid you come in to dinner.” As far as literary interpretation goes, one could surmise that William Shakespeare’s intent behind writing this statement was for Beatrice to incite an emotional state of shock in Benedick. The complicated romantic interests between Beatrice and Benedick in the course of the play would serve as a motivation for Beatrice to desire to pursue such emotional appeals. The second step, according to Aristotle, is for an individual to enforce the desired state of mind through vivid imagery related to the evoked emotions. Later in the same dialogue, Beatrice states, “Yea, just so much as you may take upon a knife’s point and choke a daw withal. You have no stomach, signior: fare you well.” Such poignant imagery and insults toward Benedick possess the effect of reinforcing the state of shock that Beatrice sought to engender in Benedick during their exchange in Act 2, Scene 3. The third step in Aristotle’s principles of how to effectively execute pathos in the intended audience of an act of pathetic speech is for the speaker to address a target, whether explicitly or implicitly, for the audience to select as the recipient of their newly persuaded emotional state. At the end of this dialogue between Beatrice and Benedict in Act 2, Scene 3, Benedict speaks, “If I do not take pity of her, I am a villain; if I do not love her, I am a Jew. I will go get her picture.” The fact that Beatrice’s appeals manage to succeed in prompting Benedick to think strongly about her suggests that Beatrice successfully executed the incitement of pathos in an interaction with Benedick.

A further example of this pattern of Aristotelian principles of pathetic appeal in action during the course of Much Ado About Nothing occurs in Act 4, Scene 1 in another dialogue between Benedick and Beatrice, although this instance entails turned tables in which Benedick attempts to execute emotional appeals toward Beatrice. In this scene from the play, Benedick states, “I do love nothing in the world so well as you: is not that strange?” Benedick initializes the aforementioned first step of Aristotle’s pathetic principles through suggesting that the state of mind that he wishes to create is one of love. At this point in the dialogue, the love between Benedick and Beatrice had yet to have been explicitly indicated, because of which Benedick must still convince these feelings through emotional appeal. Benedick goes further in this dialogue with Beatrice to say, “I will swear by it that you love me; and I will make him eat it that says I love not you.” The “it” to which Benedick refers in this context is his sword, meaning that he will swear by his sword, a symbol of virility, that he loves Beatrice and that he would force others to feel the wrath of his might if they were to deny that his feelings for Beatrice were legitimate. Such an emotional appeal through imagery executes the second stage of Aristotle’s definition of how to successfully muster pathos in an audience. The vivid imagery of the passion associated with Benedick’s sword, a symbol of both masculinity and violence, demands an emotional response to these illustrative words. Beatrice ultimately responds to these appeals in expressing, “But manhood is melted into courtesies, valour into compliment, and men are only turned into tongue, and trim ones too: he is now as valiant as Hercules that only tells a lie and swears it. I cannot be a man with wishing, therefore I will die a woman with grieving.” Despite the fact that Benedick’s appeals to Beatrice regarding his love for her in an attempt to incite such passions within her were vivid, this quote demonstrates that this specific appeal was unsuccessful and did not fully engage Beatrice in reciprocating such strong emotions toward Benedick. Even if Beatrice might have had Benedick in mind during this pathetic exchange, this emotional appeal was fundamentally unable to move Beatrice to action and therefore was not a successful usage of these rhetorical principles.

Although the interactions between Beatrice and Benedick in the various scenes of Much Ado About Nothing are rife for discussion about various instances of Aristotle’s techniques of pathetic appeal in the context of the play’s interpersonal dynamics, this does not ultimately mean that every instance of incited pathos in the context of Shakespeare’s comedy was intended to be a successful manifestation of Aristotelian rhetoric. This rings true even in the case that these examples of emotional appeals in the text follow the three-step format of how Aristotle defines that one should attempt to execute an emotional appeal in order to effectively achieve the final result of evoking action in the targeted audience through pathos. The problem remains, however, in the discussion of how precisely could one interpret the motivations of an author or even the characters within a text without an explicit clarification of how the author intended for an audience to receive his or her text. For the modern reader, however, we possess all of the facilities in order to attempt to juxtapose various sources with one another so that we may attempt to parse out the meaning and motivations behind various sections of text through how they are formatted and through the impacts that these dialogues have. A closed reading of William Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing through a juxtaposition with Aristotle’s Rhetoric helps one to develop an understanding of these emotional appeals and how they might have likely arisen in the context of Shakespeare’s writing. In other words, it might not be uncommon for distinctive literary forms to refract off of one another in such manners through the incorporation of diverse rhetorical techniques. Such a closed reading illustrates that such rhetorical interpretation of pathos in William Shakespeare’s work is not only plausible, but likely in a comparative literary analysis.

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