Shakespeare Create Comedy Through the Characters of Dogberry, Verges and the Watch

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In Much Ado About Nothing, Shakespeare is able to create comedy through the character of Dogberry and other members of the Watch through 16th Century England stereotypes and malapropisms which highlight the lack of intelligence of the Watch. In the scenes involving the Watch, there is a shift from the witty verse in scenes involving the more educated characters to prose in the scenes containing the Watch. This contrast shows that they are not as astute or as bright as the other characters in the play and that the people involved are not intelligent enough to deserve a well-written, witty scene of verse but instead merit only clumsy prose.

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In Act 4 Scene 2, at the judgement of Borachio and Conrad, Dogberry attempts to outrule Sexton, the judge, in order to heighten his supposed intelligence despite the fact that this only serves to underline his incompetence and stupidity as constable of the Watch. Dogberry first mistakes the meaning of the word ‘malefactors’ to mean him and Verges and then, as the judge tells him, goes ‘not the way to examine’. 

This shows that Dogberry believes himself to be capable of leading an important trial but proves himself to be incompetent and, through a series of malapropisms, reminds the audience that he is, ‘though it be not written down … an ass’. This word, implying a stupid donkey, has vulgar connotations with the similarity to the word ‘arse’. 

The angry speech serves to show Dogberry’s self-importance and ends with an angry exclamation of ‘O that I had been writ down an ass!’. The use of Dogberry’s delusion of being smart enough to control a court case and the constant confusion of words beyond his understanding, aids the creation of humour in Act 4 scene 2 of Much Ado About Nothing.

Shakespeare ridicules the character of Dogberry through his traditional, comedic ‘sidekick’ Verges and his overzealous, exaggerated remarks mocking the self-importance of Dogberry, the constable of the Watch. Verges uses short comments which praise Dogberry’s honesty, mercy or simply reiterate what was said prior to Verges’ interjection. Verges praises his boss after Dogberry said the Watch should leave any thieves they find be, by saying that he ‘has always been a merciful man’ and calls him his ‘partner’. 

This shows not only that Dogberry is clearly incapable at his job, but also that Verges cannot see through his facade. This partly uses dramatic irony as the audience is expected to understand that Dogberry is clueless yet the other characters in the scene cannot. The use of the word ‘partner’ shows that Verges believes that Dogberry is his colleague but it is clear by the fact that it is Dogberry who leads the conversation that Dogberry does not share this opinion, showing Dogberry’s self-importance. This criticism of the social order used for comedic effect, emphasises the naivety of Verges and his praising interjections further prove the stupidity of Dogberry.

Shakespeare uses the Elizabethan stereotype of the stupidity of Watchmen in the 16th century through the use of malapropisms to create reversal humour in Much Ado About Nothing. Throughout Act 3 Scene 3 and Act 4 Scene 2, Dogberry, leader of the Watch and therefore logically the most intelligent, repeatedly mistakes the meaning of relatively simple words such as the confusion of ‘salvation’ to replace damnation, or the misuse of ‘desertless’ to mean deserving. 

The use of rhyming the words Dogberry means and those he says or making them at least very similar, serves to explicitly explain to the audience what it is that Dogberry is meaning to say. These malapropisms were so iconic that they soon became known as Dogberryisms. The confusion of these words are specifically chosen in order to heighten the appearance of Dogberry’s intelligence, but only serves to highlight his lack of it. In addition to this, the name Dogberry is chosen as in the Elizabethan era of Shakespeare’s time, a Dogberry was a sour, disgusting berry that was only ever used if there was nothing else to be eaten. 

This would have been instantly obvious for his audience who would recognise that the character was being mocked. The common stereotype of Watchmen as unintelligent – as the job was unpaid and relied solely on volunteers, meaning that anyone, even the least educated people, could become Watchman – was made use of to create comedy in Much Ado About Nothing. The recurring use of malapropisms and reversal comedy by the audience expecting the Watch to be somewhat intelligent as they protect the streets, was ideal for conveying, once more, the stupidity of Dogberry which is used for comedic effect in the play.

Shakespeare creates comedy in Much Ado About Nothing through the stereotype of Elizabethan Watchmen as lazy and lethargic. An example of this first comes in Act 3 Scene 3 where a watchman tells Dogberry that he will ‘rather sleep than talk’. This explicitly shows the laziness of these men, which was a common stereotype in the Elizabethan era, creating a caricature of Watchmen by taking a suggestion that some are lazy, and applying it in abundancy by implying that throughout their watch, all they do is sleep. 

This behaviour is seemingly encouraged by their constable who tells them to ‘comprehend all vagrom men’ (a malapropism meaning to apprehend all vagrant men) but also to leave drunk men lying, not interfere with thieves and let crying children cry and leave the nurse to deal with it. These very obviously contradictory statements further highlight Dogberry’s incompetence as constable of the Watch and ridicules the laziness of both him and his men. The character of Dogberry, his self-importance and his stupidity shown through his malapropisms manages to create a stereotype of an Elizabethan Watchman for comedic effect in Much Ado About Nothing.  

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