In this post I am going to try to suggest a potential approach to this essay. Hopefully I will manage to answer the question whilst hitting the requirement of the marking rubric which insists, quite rightly, that writer’s craft should be at the forefront of any response. The essay is not intended as an exemplar in any way, but a vehicle for discussion:
13-18 Sound knowledge and understanding of the text evident in the response
Comments about the writer’s use of characterisation/theme/plot/setting for literary effect show sound appreciation of the writer’s craft
Engagement with the text is sound, examples used are clearly relevant Where response requires consideration of two or more features, a clear balance is evident
19-24 Thorough knowledge and understanding of the text evident in the response
Comments about the writer’s use of characterisation/theme/plot/setting for literary effect show sustained appreciation of the writer’s craft
Engagement with the text is sustained, examples used are fully relevant Where response requires consideration of two or more features, a thorough, balanced approach is evident
25-30 Assured knowledge and understanding of the text evident in the response
Comments about the writer’s use of characterisation/theme/plot/setting for literary effect show a perceptive appreciation of the writer’s craft
Engagement with the text is assured, examples used are fully relevant Where response requires consideration of two or more features, a perceptive, balanced approach is evident.
I feel that alongside detailed response to key quotations, awareness of the FORM of the play and the consequent requirements on Shakespeare to adhere to the comic stereotype should be brought out in an essay on this subject. The same approach should also be made if Hero is the subject of the essay. In addition, it is clear that there should be regular well-chosen quotations to support and develop the argument and which are the subject of close, word-level analysis when possible.
Shakespeare prepares the audience for the arrival of Claudio in the opening discussion and scene setting between Leonato and the Messenger. The comic genre requires a young protagonist, preferably in love, whose trials the audience will watch until the eventual revelation of the truth and the subsequent happy ending. Since Claudio is the first character of this type to be mentioned, it is fair to assume that he will take on this role. His character is given depth when the messenger uses the metaphor that he has enacted “in the figure of a lamb the feats of a lion”. This description gives a clear indication of his character: pure and innocent outwardly, but capable of acts of great power and cruelty or savagery. The noble connotation of the lion should not be allowed to hide the potential for destruction that the animal holds.
In the early scenes of the play, Claudio is all “lamb”. He is young and naive, quick to respond to his emotion and easily swayed. Not only does he fall in love without even a word passing between he and Hero, asking Benedick whether he “noted” Leonato’s daughter, but his youthful ardour is supported by his assertion that she is the “sweetest lady” that he had ever seen. Though he is teased by Benedick, he gains support and Don Pedro is impressed enough by his protestations of love as Shakespeare shifts into verse form at the end of 1.1- “… come thronging soft and delicate desires”. There are potential indications of trouble to come as Shakespeare plants discreet references to possible greed – “hath signor Leonato a son?”- but at this stage the protagonist of the comedy fits the required description – a young man, deeply in love.
Shakespeare quickly moves to add complexity to his character. After briefly introducing Don John in 1.3, Shakespeare develops the poisoning of Claudio’s mind which is necessary for his character to undergo a shift towards “darkness” required by the genre. At the masked ball in 2.1 and again in 3.2, Don John tries to trick Claudio into doubting Hero’s faithfulness. Claudio – a willing deceiver of Benedick in 2.3 is on the receiving end of deceit and, as is expected in a play in which mis-noting is such a key theme, is led to believe the evidence of his eyes when observing a midnight tryst. Not only does he fall out of love with the impetuosity of youth, but Shakespeare enhances his credentials as a comic protagonist by ensuring that his response is clearly vindictive and cruel: “If I see anything… there will I shame her”. Claudio is made to present the darker side of his character in an instant reaction which requires not just refusing marriage, but also, by shaming Hero, public humiliation of the innocent victim.
The crisis is reached in 4.1 when Shakespeare allows CLaudio full vent to his malign anger. Prepared and guided by the “bastard” Don John, he humiliates Hero, calling her a “rotten orange” and accusing her of knowing the “heat of luxurious bed”, both accusations carrying clear overtones of a loss of virginity and of sexual practices, with the word “luxurious” carrying the meaning more of “lustful” than the modern sense of comfortable. It is only after Leonato has joined in the attack that Shakespeare begins to mix the core comic plot and the subplot of Beatrice ad Benedick. The comic genre requires a crisis and often a hiding-away of the victim in order that her innocence can be proven. At this time, once the Friar has drawn attention to the need for “noting” in all situations, Hero is taken away and centre stage is occupied by the pair who have hitherto been seen as the comic subplot -Beatrice and Benedick. It is a mark of Shakespeare’s genius that this much loved pair, who can seriously imbalance many productions of the play, should be seen as the supporting cast. They are romantically intriguing and entertaining, but do not carry the weight of the comic plot which is based not so much on the need for humour, but on the need to provide entanglement and a happy resolution. Once Benedick has agreed to “kill Claudio”, the resolution can be shown.
In Act 5 Shakespeare shows the audience Claudio’s arrogance in the face of the two old men “without teeth”. He has not fooled Antonio who sees through the leonine projection of cruelty and pride to see behind it not a lamb, but Claudio as typical of a “fashion-monging boy”, repeating the noun four times in as many lines to emphasise the point. It is only after the much delayed revelation of the truth and Boracchio’s confession a tthe end of 5.1 that Claudio’s character can return to its earlier state. He is forced to make a public statement of sorrow for the “death of Hero” and to take part in a punishment that will see him wed to another girl. Once he has done his penance, Shakespeare can re-introduce Hero, veiled in keeping with the theme of noting and reminiscent of 2.1, the scene in which the deceits began. Claudio’s response -“another Hero!” is a response of shock and pleasure, as indicated by the exclamation mark, and he speaks no more in relation to Hero in the play, giving her a slight dominance over him for the first time, suggesting that he is still totally aware of the wrong he has done. The comic plot has been brought to its conclusion and the protagonist of the play has been presented as having learned some humility after the excesses of his behaviour when he was under Don John’s spell.
Although Shakespeare still needs to wrap up his second couple and bring Beatrice and Benedick together, the comic plot of the play ends with the wedding of Claudio and Hero. Claudio’s character is revealed as having undergone a significant journey during the play and finally, all the troubles that he has been instrumental in causing have been smoothed out. That he can be described as the protagonist of this play is without a doubt.