The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 14.1032 Saturday, 31 May 2003
From: Jack Heller <
Date: Monday, 26 May 2003 10:18:39 -0500 (EST)
Subject: Dogberry's Inscrutable Grace
Below is a reduced version of a conference paper I delivered at
Kalamazoo this year. What I cut was a brief discussion of the recusancy
theory (which I used to agree with but no longer do so) and a brief
discussion of Claudio's penance. I would welcome comments on these
Assistant Professor of English
Dogberry's Inscrutable Grace: Reformist "Propisms" and Renaissance
In the criticism of Much Ado, not enough attention has been given to the
religious or theological signification of Dogberry's language. For
example, in act three, scene five, in Dogberry's conversation with
Leonato, Verges interrupts with the news of the arrest of "arrant
knaves." Dogberry attributes Verges's earnest interruption to the slight
faults of age:
DOGBERRY [referring to Verges]: A good old man, sir, he will be talking;
as they say, 'When the age is in, the wit is out', God help us, it is a
world to see! Well said, i'fath, neighbor Verges; well, God's a good
man, and two men ride of a horse, one must ride behind. An honest soul,
i'faith, sir, by my troth he is, as ever broke bread; but God is to be
worshipped, all men are not alike, alas, good neighbour!
LEONATO: Indeed, neighbour, he comes too short of you.
DOGBERRY: Gifts that God gives.
LEONATO: I must leave you. (3.5.32 - 42)
In theology, gifts that God gives come from divine grace or mercy. In
reformation theology, these are given without effort or merit on the
part of the recipient. Indeed, God's grace might seem to come out of
nowhere, without reference to the occasion of its appearance. With
"Gifts that God gives," Dogberry might be referring to Verges's honesty,
but "gifts" is a plural word, so what else are God's gifts? Dogberry's
allusion to God's grace seems to lack place in the context.
Because it is Dogberry speaking, we could expect its lack of context.
However, are we not alerted to rethink the sense of Dogberry's words
when, at 4.2.1, he asks, "Is our whole dissembly appeared?" Should we
expect some Shakespearean dissembling in Dogberry's malapropisms? Is
there some pointing to God's grace with Dogberry, that he and his
associates accomplish so much more than what could be expected from
Editors usually gloss Dogberry's malapropisms as mistakes for which they
supply the word he should have said or intended. Thus, the Arden, the
Pelican, the Bevington, the New Folger, and the Norton editors all
annotate "dissembly" as a mistake for "assembly." The problem with most
editions of Much Ado is that their glosses implicitly close off the
possibility of meaning for Dogberry's and his associates' words as
presented, whether in their dissembly or in their uses of religious
language. Roger Sales notes that
"Dogberry's misplacement of 'assembly' and 'dissembly' is not ... a
completely innocent one. A 'dissembly' is quite literally an appearance
or illusion, often associated with theatrical ones. ... Borachio and
Conrade are dissemblers in the sense that they have both been involved
with a theatrical production [the supposed seduction of Hero].
Dogberry's slip of the tongue is thus part of the burlesque version of
transgression and redemption, for the dissemblers are to be tried by a
dissembly. A theatrical production is to be tried in a theatre of law
with Dogberry trying to put in a suitably solemn and dignified
performance." (76 - 77)
Sales's observation of the burlesque version of transgression and
redemption in Dogberry's dissembly can be taken further because diffused
in his performance of law is his parody-inadvertent or otherwise-of
grace. Although Dogberry is Shakespeare's most famous user of
malapropisms, the fact that he is able to converse with his associates
Verges and the First Watchman while they also use malapropisms suggests
that within their own limited semiotic system, they are communicating
successfully. Furthermore, Dogberry and his associates frequently
converse as if they have an amateur interest in theology. At Dogberry's
first appearance in the play, he questions his partner Verges about the
new night watch recruits:
DOGBERRY: Are you good men and true?
VERGES: Yea, or else it were pity but they should suffer salvation, body
DOGBERRY: Nay, that were a punishment too good for them, if they should
have any allegiance in them, being chosen for the Prince's watch. (3.3.1
If the new recruits are not good men, that would be a pity, but we
should resist the glossing of "salvation" as a mistake for "damnation."
It is equally possible that "suffer" is the ironic term in Verges's
comment; after all, salvation goes to those who are not good men and
true. "Suffer," by the way, also has the meanings of "to permit or
allow" and "to experience," making a face-value reading of Verges's
The parody of the reformist system of grace continues when those "chosen
for the Prince's watch" are examined to identify the "most desartless
man" to be the leader of the watch. "Desartless," meaning "undeserving,"
is commonly glossed as a blunder for "deserving," but to be chosen to
serve the prince while undeserving would parallel the unmerited,
unconditional election of the saints in Calvinist theology. The watchman
chosen to be the leader is apparently George Seacoal, to whom Dogberry
says, "God hath blessed you with a good name: To be a well-favoured man
is the gift of fortune, but to write and read comes by nature" (3.3.13 -
16). He then instructs Seacoal, "Well, for your favour, sir, why, give
God thanks, and make no boast of it" (3.3.18 - 21). There may be an
allusion in Dogberry's words to St. Paul's epistle to the Ephesians,
chapter 2, verses 8 and 9: "For by grace are ye saved through faith; and
that not of yourselves: it is the gift of God: Not of works, lest any
man should boast." Here, if Seacoal's good name and good favor are gifts
of God, examples of God's grace to him, then he has no cause to boast.
One of the common arguments against Calvinist theology is that it
implicitly permits lawlessness because grace can theoretically be given
to any sinner, no matter how reprobate. Dogberry's approach to law
enforcement consistently calls to mind the theological dichotomy of law
and grace, and usually in favor of grace. Regarding thieves, Dogberry
instructs the watch:
[DOGBERRY:] If you meet a thief, you may suspect him, by virtue of your
office, to be no true man; and for such kind of men, the less you meddle
or make with them, why, the more is for your honesty.
WATCH: If we know him to be a thief, shall we not lay hands on him?
DOGBERRY: Truly, by your office you may, but I think they that touch
pitch will be defiled. The most peaceable way for you, if you do take a
thief, is to let him show himself what he is, and steal out of your
VERGES: You have been always called a merciful man, partner. (3.3.49 -
These instructions minimize the distinction of law enforcer and
lawbreaker, emphasizing instead the commonality of sinners. Thus,
Dogberry's mercy may extend both to the thief for his release from
arrest and to the watchmen themselves whose honesty is at risk by
meddling with thieves. The thief does not escape recognition, including
a self-recognition, by showing himself for the sinner he is, but such
recognition is paradoxically a sign in reformist theology that one may
have God's grace.
The actual villains the watch apprehends-or to use Dogberry's word,
"comprehends"-are Borachio and Conrade just after Borachio reveals his
wooing of Margaret in the name of Hero to deceive Claudio. The first
watchman (George Seacoal?) orders the other watchmen to "Call up the
right Master Constable; we have here recovered the most dangerous piece
of lechery that ever was known in the commonwealth" (3.3.160 - 62). For
these lines, the glosses read "recovered" as a mistake for "discovered"
and "lechery" for "treachery." But one of the economical features of the
malapropism is its ability to encompass two meanings, related or
disparate, at once. Borachio's treachery is in his performance of
lechery with Margaret. More significant for Borachio is the recovery of
his treacherous lechery in Dogberry's dissembly of law.
In Dogberry's dissembly, the proceedings begin not as a legal
examination of points of evidence and culpability, but as a spiritual
examination of the state of Borachio's and Conrade's souls:
DOGBERRY: Masters, do you serve God?
CONRADE, BORACHIO: Yea, sir, we hope.
DOGBERRY: Write down that they hope they serve God: and write 'God'
first, for God defend but God should go before such villains! (4.2.14 -
Left to Dogberry's guidance, the examination would never get to the
point at issue, but the sexton reminds Dogberry to call for the
testimony of the watchmen. Upon the sexton's questioning, despite
Dogberry's misdirections, sufficient evidence is gathered to sustain the
charges of slander which are later brought to Leonato. Perhaps the
Dogberry line which most resembles a reformist aphorism is his
conclusion of the watch's deposition; to Borachio he says, "O villain!
Thou wilt be condemned into everlasting redemption for this" (4.2.53 -
54). "Redemption" is almost always glossed as a mistake for "damnation,"
but John Allen notes that
"[The] notion of being condemned into redemption is not actually
nonsense at all but is a familiar Christian paradox-to be found, for
instance, in the Donnesque conceit in which the sinner's heart becomes a
boon because it is drawn, like iron, to the magnet, God. Taken in this
way, the remark applies quite aptly to Borachio, who shows distinct
signs of going straight after he has been caught red-handed in his dirty
work. Obviously, Dogberry is entirely unaware of this, but Shakespeare
was not as he frequently put words of wisdom, intentional and otherwise,
into the mouths of children and fools." (37)
The paradox Allen identifies is perhaps not universal within Christian
theology, but it is certainly central to a Calvinist notion of
predestination. Furthermore, Dogberry's persistent recourse to religious
or theological language suggests the possibility that he is more aware
of theology than he is of his obligations as a law enforcer. Perhaps the
more ironic misstatement in "Thou wilt be condemned into everlasting
redemption" is "condemned" rather than "redemption."
Borachio's treacherous lechery is fully recovered by his confessions in
act five, scene one. He expresses his willingness to submit to capital
punishment for the supposed death, upon his slander, of Hero. His last
speech in the play is to clear Margaret from any responsibility for the
plot: she "knew not what she did when she spoke to me, / But always hath
been just and virtuous / In anything that I do know by her" (5.1.295 -
97). Several critics have read Borachio's concern for Margaret as a
sign of redemption for his character as he leaves the stage. We do not
know what happens to Borachio afterwards, but because Hero is in fact
alive, he does not face execution, "the reward of a villain" (5.1.238).
At the risk of oversimplifying, I want to suggest that the un-annotated
signification of Dogberry's malapropisms tends to reveal the inherent
ironies of unmerited grace in reformed theology while subordinating the
force of law to the audience's mere expectations of what is appropriate
for constables and watchmen. Through the Dogberry plot, Shakespeare
shows a clear understanding of key tenets of reformed theology. But
however delightful the constabulary is, one could hardly have much
confidence in their continuing success in law enforcement. A resident of
Messina may very well hope that "if a merry meeting may be wished, God
prohibit it" (5.1.319 - 20). As reformed theology is parodied through
these bumbling characters, what we might see is not so much a reformist
Shakespeare, but a playwright with a sense of divine providence working
mysteriously bridging divides-of male and female with Benedick and
Beatrice and Claudio and Hero, of Protestant and Catholic, of English
and Italian, of "shallow fools" who discover Borachio's wrongs and "your
wisdoms" that missed them, of law and grace. Even the arrangement of
scenes, with two Dogberry scenes coming between Don John's ruse of the
unfaithful Hero (3.2) and the broken nuptials of act four, scene one,
creates an expectation that everything will end with comic resolution,
however potentially tragic the slander against Hero may appear to be.
What we have between the Protestant Dogberry and the Catholic Claudio
practicing penance is not a via media, but two distinct ways, joined and
overseen by "the divinity that shapes our ends, / Rough-hew them how we
will" (Hamlet, 5.2.10 - 11).
Finally, I hope that this paper suggests the need to be alert to, and to
caution students about, the potential foreclosure of meaning if we
submit too much to the authority of annotations. As editors try to
explain meanings, they may succeed in explaining meanings away. "Adieu.
Be vigitant, I beseech you" (3.3.92).
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