As a kind of bridge in my consideration of the two Comedies (since Twelfth Night is still on my mind) I’d like to kick this off with a look at Feste’s themes and try to show how they play out in the first two acts of Much Ado. In the guise of one Sir Tobas, Feste says, “That that is is” (4.2 13). But hadn’t he just said in the previous scene “nothing that is so is so” (4.1 7)? So which is it? That that is is or nothing that is so is so? On deeper reflection, perhaps those “so”’s are the vessels of meaning in that sentence that hint at a fundamental difference in the ontology of the two phrases. We might elaborate on the two sentences to discover their underlying harmony: That that is is, might mean to say that THAT--the essential nature of a thing, its core and creative source--is the only thing that can be said to truly Be, while “that” that is merely “so” is not actually, originally so--or rather the “so” part of “that” is a mask of the true being of THAT--which is by its nature unavailable for rendering in language, in words, unless that language is understood merely to point to its essential nature, like the road sign that leads the way to a vast metropolis. So that nothing that is “so” is in fact “so” because the state of being “so” is itself malleable, no more than a facade that morphs in and out of life in an ever changing process of becoming (the river of Hericlitus, into which we cannot step twice). On the other hand, THAT that IS, abides in an eternal state of Being; it is not subject to becoming like the (no)things that are merely “so.” And so the almost immediate transformation of identity in the masquerading outset of Much Ado, brings into question the same thematic concerns--perhaps ontological concerns--that Feste raises in his merry wordplay in Twelfth Night.
Don Pedro’s “remedy” for Claudio in 1.1 is to assume his part in some disguise “and tell fair Hero I am Claudio” (1.1 268). And so when Antonio delivers the strange news to Leonato in the following scene, he equates the overheard news to a book that has “a good cover” (1.2 6-7). But they will “hold it as a dream till it appear itself." The news appears at first to be good; but we later find out that the news that Antonio brings is not in fact the news that is; the cover is grown as false as melancholic Don John who pleads to his servant Conrad, “let me be that I am, and seek not to alter me” (1.3 29). The irony is that Don John’s cover quite plainly reveals the nature of the words in his book of being, and yet as we see later in the play he is grievously misread. It seems we encounter the same problems of reading identity in this play as we did in Twelfth Night.