In the past twenty years, a great deal of criticism has focused on concerns about appearances in the early modern period, particularly in terms of “self-fashioning”; 1 in this article, I want to look at the other side of this issue: the fashioning not of the self but of others through theatrical display. The debate over the stage in early modern England was also a debate over the ways in which audiences perceived and were affected by spectacles. This debate, at its most polemical, led the theater’s detractors to claim that audiences would “learne howe . . . to beguyle, howe to betraye . . . howe to murther, howe to poyson, howe to disobey and rebell agaynst Princes,” and its supporters to claim the theater “teach[es] the subjects obedience to their King . . . shew[s] the people the untimely ends of such as have moved tumults, commotions and insurrections . . . present[s] them with the flourishing estate of such as live in obedience, exhorting them to allegeance, dehorting them from all trayterous and fellonious stratagems.” 2 These claims can easily be applied to the same plays; the “trayterous and fellonious stratagems” that Thomas Heywood claims the theater teaches its audience members to avoid are the same as those John Northbrooke claims it teaches them to perform. But playwrights recognized the power of the audience over the play as well as the converse that so agitated the theater’s opponents.
For the antitheatrical tracts of the 1580s, the threatening power of the stage lies in the inevitable interpretive failure of its audience—in the way in which “straunge consortes of melody . . . costly apparel . . . effeminate gestures . . . and wanton speache . . . by the privie entries of the eare, slip downe into the hart, and . . . gaule the minde, where reason and vertue should rule the roste.” 3 Playwrights seem to have shared the antitheatrical writers’ interest in, though not their despair of, the ways in which their audiences [End Page 291] perceived spectacles. Much Ado about Nothing is centrally concerned with problems of knowledge and perception. The representation of multiple deceptions reveals a mechanism of creating methods of interpretation—the process by which narratives ensure particular readings of spectacles, at times in the face of other equally possible interpretations. The theater audience’s assumption of its own privileged position as eavesdropper is undercut by the frequency with which the play’s characters are deceived by their assumptions that eavesdropping offers unproblematic access to truth. 4
When Claudio denounces Hero at their abortive wedding, he asks as a means of confirming his accusation, “Leonato, stand I here? / Is this the prince? Is this the prince’s brother? / Is this face Hero’s? Are our eyes our own?” 5 If, as Leonato admits, “All this is so,” then Hero is guilty of seeming unchastity and Claudio’s denunciation and repudiation of her is acceptable within the social framework of the play (IV.i.66). But Leonato is wrong; all of this is not so. In supposing that our eyes are our own in the same unarguable way that he “stand[s] here,” Claudio implies that only one interpretation of a spectacle is possible—a position the play is at some pains to dispute. Claudio sees Hero’s face, but it is not the same face he saw the previous night at Hero’s window because, in the deception of Claudio and Don Pedro, their eyes are extensions of Don John’s vision, not their own. Moreover, the theater audience is denied direct access to the pivotal moments in Don Pedro and Claudio’s courtship of Hero—Don Pedro’s wooing of her at the masked ball and the scene of Margaret and Borachio at Hero’s window—and instead must cope with multiple and contradictory narratives it can only measure against each other. In its dependence on frequently false narratives, the theater audience also sees with eyes that are not its own.
From the first scene, Much Ado presents a world of differing interpretations which cannot be reconciled. Claudio says of Hero that “In mine eye, she is the sweetest lady that ever I looked on,” but Benedick “can see yet...