Much Ado About Nothing
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Much Ado About Nothing is a comedy by William Shakespeare. First published in 1600, it was likely first performed in the winter of 1598-1599. Stylistically, it shares many characteristics with modern romantic comedies, and it remains one of Shakespeare's most enduringly popular plays on stage.
The five acts follow two pairs of lovers. Although the romance between Claudio and Hero ostensibly forms the main plot, the action is in fact primarily concerned with their counterparts, Benedick and Beatrice, whose love-hate relationship and witty bickering develops over the course of the play.
Performance and Publication
The earliest printed text states that the play was "sundry times publicly acted" prior to 1600; but the earliest performances certainly known are two that were given at Court in the winter of 1612-13, during the festivities preceding the marriage of Princess Elizabeth with Frederick V, Elector Palatine (Feb. 14, 1613).
The play was published in quarto in 1600 by the stationers William Aspley and Andrew Wise. This was the only edition prior to the First Folio in 1623.
The play was certainly popular in its early decades, as it would be later: in a poem published in 1640, Leonard Digges wrote "...let but Beatrice / And Benedick be seen, lo in a trice / The Cockpit galleries, boxes, all are full."
After the theatres had re-opened during the Restoration, Sir William Davenant staged The Law Against Lovers (1662), which inserted Beatrice and Benedick into an adaptation of Measure for Measure. Another adaptation, The Universal Passion, combined Much Ado with a play by Molière (1737). Meanwhile, Shakespeare's original text had been revived by John Rich at Lincoln's Inn Fields (1721). David Garrick first played Benedick in 1748, and would continue to play the role till 1776.
Don Pedro, Prince of Aragon
Benedick, of Padua; a lord, companion of Don Pedro
Claudio, of Florence; a lord, companion of Don Pedro
Balthasar, attendant on Don Pedro, a singer
Don John, the bastard brother of Don Pedro
Borachio, follower of Don John
Conrad, follower of Don John
Leonato, governor of Messina
Hero, his daughter
Beatrice, an orphan, his niece
Antonio, an old man, brother of Leonato
Margaret, waiting-gentlewoman attendant on Hero
Ursula, waiting-gentlewoman attendant on Hero
Dogberry, the Constable in charge of the Watch
Verges, the Headborough, Dogberry’s partner
A Boy, serving Benedick
Attendants and messengers
Innogen, a ghost character included in early editions as Leonato's wife
Note: In the original production by the Lord Chamberlain's Men, William Kempe played Dogberry and Richard Cowley played Verges.
Major Characters in Brief
Benedick: A handsome and clever courtier, Benedick is a close friend to both Claudio and Don Pedro. He also has a reputation as a lady-killer, but proclaims that he will never be a fool for love, and will never marry unless he meets a woman who is completely perfect in every way. He and Beatrice seem to enjoy antagonizing each other, though Beatrice can be successful in wounding his substantial pride. Benedick has cultivated a careful persona and does not want to jeopardise his reputation.
Beatrice: A lovely, intelligent maiden, Beatrice enjoys taunting men, especially Benedick, and declares she will never marry. Though she believes her attitude toward men is merely playful, she does not wish to be thought of as shrewish and scornful, particularly by her cousin Hero and her uncle Leonato. Beatrice is particularly close to Hero; the two are like sisters, and Beatrice would do anything to defend Hero, as when she asks Benedick to kill Claudio because of his dishonoring Hero.
Claudio: A young and newly-proven warrior, Claudio is the right-hand man of Don Pedro and a close friend of Benedick. Claudio is easily led by Don Pedro or anyone else who engages his trust or flatters his pride. Upon his return from battle, Claudio is eager to marry the most convenient eligible maiden.
Hero: Hero is an innocent and modest maiden who is eager to love and be loved. Though sweet and compassionate, she nevertheless has a playful side with which she engages her cousin Beatrice. Hero is the sole heir to her father Leonato’s fortune.
Don Pedro: Affable, talkative, and jocular, Don Pedro is an engaging foreign prince who is always eager for amusement. He is the creator of many harmless schemes to aid his friends in their romantic endeavors, but he has a more serious side, particularly when his pride and honor are threatened.
Don John: Don John, the villain of the piece, is the bastard half-brother of Don Pedro. Bitter about his illegitimacy and his recent defeat, Don John cannot stoop to meeting the social expectations of others; instead, he is eager to ruin his rivals’ happiness in any way he can.
Leonato: A venerable governor and father of one, Leonato’s primary concern is for his daughter Hero to marry well. Though he clearly cares for his daughter, and even his exasperating niece Beatrice, he is easily swayed by the opinions of others, and his excitable temper may lead him to make remarks he later regrets. His brother Antonio lives on Leonato’s estate.
Dogberry: The bumbling parish constable, Dogberry often confuses words and gives advice that seems to be the opposite of what would be sensible.
The first relationship presented in the play is that of Beatrice, a “pleasant-spirited lady” (2.1.326), and Benedick, a quick-witted jokester. They seem to know each other well and have for a long time (Beatrice remarks, “I know you of old.” (1.1.139-40)), and they regularly engage in a “skirmish of wit” (1.1.59), or an exchange of clever insults. When their friends decide to “humour [Beatrice], that she shall fall in love with Benedick” and “so practise on Benedick that, in despite of his quick wit and his queasy stomach, he shall fall in love with Beatrice” (2.1.362-366), the two secretly fall in love with each other.
Meanwhile, the villainous Don John conspires to “build mischief on” (1.3.43-4) the betrothal of two other lovers, Claudio and Hero. Claudio is a soldier who came home from the war and fell in love with Hero (practically at first sight) upon his return. Hero, likewise, fell in love with him, and their marriage was arranged almost immediately.
Complications arise when Claudio believes he sees Don John’s associate with his wife-to-be “at her chamber-window” (2.2.41). In reality, Hero had not been unfaithful; the associate’s lover, Margaret, had disguised herself in the likeness of Hero, causing a misperception – “thought they Margaret was Hero” (3.3.150).
At their wedding, Claudio publicly humiliates Hero and accuses her of licentiousness, “savage sensuality” (4.1.60), and “impiety” (4.1.104). The presiding friar suspects “some strange misprision” (4.1.185) and suggests of Hero’s family to “Let her awhile be secretly kept in, And publish it that she is dead indeed” (4.1.203-4) until the truth of her innocence is uncovered.
In the aftermath of the catastrophic ceremony, Benedick and Beatrice confess their love for one another. Benedick, “engaged” (4.2.330) and pledging allegiance to Beatrice, promises to challenge Claudio. Fortunately, the local constabulary has “comprehended [apprehended] two aspicious persons” (3.5.44) – two of Don John’s accomplices. Hero’s innocence is revealed, and Hero’s father requests that Claudio “Possess the people how innocent she died”, “Hang her an epitaph upon her tomb”, and “Be yet [his] nephew” by marrying his niece, who is “Almost the copy of [his] child that’s dead” (5.1.276-284). Claudio agrees and prepares to marry the masked woman whom he believes is Hero's cousin.
At the wedding, the bride’s mask is lifted and the woman is revealed to be Hero. Benedick proposes to Beatrice, and, after a brief lovers’ quarrel, she accepts. The two couples and their companions dance in celebration.
Themes, motifs, and symbolism
Disguise and Deceit
Much Ado about Nothing centers on social expectations and performance, which is itself a form of disguise. In order to be popular and well-liked, Benedick presents the persona of the perfect courtier, but it is not infrequently apparent that he suffers from insecurities about his romantic and physical prowess. Why would he be so reluctant to marry or to fight Claudio if he were fully confident in his abilities? Benedick and the other characters hide their true, vulnerable selves under a veneer of nonchalance which is stripped away in rare moments, but returns without fail. Only Don John refuses to wear a social disguise, instead opting to practise outright deceit.
Woven into the over-all theme of disguise are several scenes of literal concealment and deception. The masquerade ball in Act II: Scene 1 has characters in masks pretending to be other than themselves. Don Pedro impersonates Claudio, while Beatrice pretends not to recognize Benedick. Even Antonio claims that he is not Antonio when directly asked by Ursula. During offstage time in Act III, Margaret unwittingly masquerades as Hero, deceiving Don Pedro and Claudio into believing Hero habitually has strange men in her room at night. In Act IV: Scene 1, Friar Francis himself recommends and applies a ruse to repair Hero’s damaged reputation. Additionally, in the most complex case of concealment and trickery in the play, Benedick and Beatrice, in Act II: Scene 3 and Act III: Scene 1 respectively, hide in the garden while their closest friends, who are fully aware of the eavesdropping, lie about the two having confessed loving each other.
A theme common to Much Ado about Nothing and many other of Shakespeare’s works is cuckoldry, or wifely infidelity. Several of the characters seem to be obssessed by the idea that a man has no way to know if his wife is unfaithful, and therefore women can take full advantage of that fact. Don John plays upon Claudio’s pride and fear of cuckoldry, which leads to the disastrous first wedding scene. Because of their mistrust of women’s sexuality, many of the males easily believe that Hero is impure, and even her father readily condemns her with very little proof. This motif runs through the play, most often in references to horns, which were a well-known symbol of cuckoldry.
Leonato’s wit is first demonstrated with a joke at his wife’s expense at (1.1.84-87):
Don Pedro: I think this is your daughter.
Leonato: Her mother hath many times told me so.
Benedick: Were you in doubt, sir, that you asked her?
Beatrice, while in truth an honest women, seems to enjoy taunting men about their inability to control women’s sexual exploits (2.1.19-24),
Beatrice: I shall lessen God’s
sending that way, for it is said God sends a curst cow short
horns, but to a cow too curst he sends none.
Leonato: So, by being too curst, God will send you no horns.
Beatrice: Just, if he send me no husband, for the which bless-
ing I am at him upon my knees every morning and evening.
and even Satan himself does not escape her mockery (2.1.36-37):
Beatrice: …[T]here will the devil meet me
like an old cuckold with horns on his head…
Benedick, on the other hand, seems to mistrust all women (1.1.196-198),
that I will have a recheat winded in my forehead, or hang my
bugle in an invisible baldric, all women shall pardon me.
and laments that so many men marry and choose to live as potential cuckolds (1.1.160-161):
Benedick: In faith, hath not the world one
man but he will wear his cap with suspicion?
He later makes an extended metaphor comparing himself to a bull if he should ever marry (1.1.213-220),
Don Pedro: Well, as time shall try. ‘In time the savage bull doth
bear the yoke.’
Benedick: The savage bull may, but if ever the sensible Bene-
dick bear it, pluck off the bull’s horns and set them in my fore-
head, and let me be vilely painted, and in such great letters as
they write ‘Here is good horse to hire’ let them signify under
my sign ‘Here you may see Benedick, the married man’.
Claudio: If this should ever happen thou wouldst be horn-mad.
which turns into a running gag as Don Pedro and Claudio later tease him about it after having set him up with Beatrice (5.1.172-173):
Don Pedro: But when shall we set the savage bull’s horns on the
sensible Benedick’s head?
Claudio: Yea, and text underneath, ‘Here dwells Benedick the
and when he and Beatrice admit they love each other (5.4.43-47):
Claudio: I think he thinks upon the savage bull.
Tush, fear not, man, we’ll tip thy horns with gold,
And all Europa shall rejoice at thee
As once Europa did at lusty Jove
When he would play the noble beast in love.
At last, however, he seems resolved to marriage, and quips to Don Pedro (5.4.117-118)
Benedick: Prince, thou art sad, get thee a wife, get thee a wife.
There is no staff more reverend than one tipped with horn.
Another motif occurring throughout the work is the play on the words nothing and noting, which, in Shakespeare’s day, were pronounced as homophones. Taken literally, the title implies that a great fuss (“much ado”) is made of something which is insignificant (“nothing”), such as the unfounded claims of Hero’s infidelity. However, the title could also be understood as “Much Ado about Noting.” Indeed, much of the action of the play revolves around interest in and critique of others, written messages, spying, and eavesdropping. Additionally, nothing is a double-entendre, as it was commonly used by Shakespeare as a euphemism for the female genitals. Thus the title could be read as "Much Ado about Female Genitalia".
Examples of noting as noticing occur in the following instances: (1.1.131-132)
Claudio: Benedick, didst thou note the daughter of Signor Leonato?
Benedick: I noted her not, but I looked on her.
Friar: Hear me a little,
For I have only been silent so long
And given way unto this course of fortune
By noting of the lady.
At (3.3.102-104), Borachio indicates that a man’s clothing doesn’t indicate his character:
Borachio: Thou knowest that the fashion of a doublet, or a hat, or a
cloak is nothing to
A triple play on words in which noting signifies noticing, musical notes, and nothing occurs at (2.3.47-52):
Don Pedro: Nay pray thee, come;
Or if thou wilt hold longer argument,
Do it in notes.
Balthasar: Note this before my notes:
There’s not a note of mine that’s worth the noting.
Don Pedro: Why, these are very crotchets that he speaks—
Note notes, forsooth, and nothing!
Don Pedro’s last line can be understood to mean, “Pay attention to your music and nothing else!”
The following are puns on notes as messages: (2.1.174-176),
Claudio: I pray you leave me.
Benedick: Ho, now you strike like the blind man—‘twas the boy
that stole your meat, and you’ll beat the post.
in which Benedick plays on the word post as a pole and as mail delivery in a joke reminiscent of Shakespeare’s earlier advice “Don’t shoot the messenger”; and (2.3.123-126)
Claudio: Now you talk of a sheet of paper, I remember a pretty
jest your daughter told us of.
Leonato: O, when she had writ it and was reading it over, she
found Benedick and Beatrice between the sheet.
in which Leonato makes a sexual innuendo concerning sheet as a sheet of paper (on which Beatrice’s love note to Benedick is to have been written) and a bedsheet.
Significance of character names
Don Pedro: Pedro is the Spanish form of the Biblical name Peter, which means "stone." The significance of the name is that it immediately identifies him as Spanish—the Italian variant of the name is Pietro.
Benedick: Benedick means "blessed"; the root bene means "good." Note that Benedick and Beatrice have the same meaning.
Claudio: Claudio is derived from claudus, meaning "lame" or "crippled." Claudio is both the Spanish and Italian variant.
Don John: The name John is reminiscent of King John of England (known as Prince John), who had a reputation for treachery and usurpation of the throne. The Spanish variant is properly Juan, which would likely have been pronounced "djoo-en" in Shakespeare’s day.
Borachio: Borachio means "drunkard" in Italian.
Leonato: Leonato is derived from the Greek word for lion.
Hero: In Greek mythology, Hero was the lover of Leander. Each night Leander swam across the Hellespont to meet her. When he accidentally drowned while crossing, she threw herself in the water and drowned as well.
Beatrice: Beatrice means "blessed". Note that Benedick and Beatrice have the same meaning.
Dogberry: The name Dogberry reflects Shakespeare’s common practise of giving fools ridiculous-sounding names. Dogberry is also the name of a type of North American wild gooseberry.
Verges: Verges is derived from the word verge, a wand or staff of office.
Shakespeare was likely influenced by several works in his writing of Much Ado about Nothing. The “merry war” between Beatrice and Benedick resembles no specific source, but could have been inspired by Chaucer’s Troilus and Criseyde, while the Claudio and Hero plot could have been based upon Canto V of Orlando Furioso or possibly Matteo Bandello’s Novella (1554). The ideal of the perfect courtier is likely from Baldassare Castiglione’s 1528 work The Book of the Courtier. 
Beatrice’s playful criticism of men echoes the more violent misandry of Shakespear’s earlier work, The Taming of the Shrew, while Don John’s spurious treachery and Hero’s victimization suggest his later work, the great tragedy Othello.
- 1994 Laurence Olivier Award: Best Actor: Mark Rylance as Benedick in Matthew Warchus’ production at the Queen’s Theatre
- 1989 Evening Standard Award: Best Actress: Felicity Kendal as Beatrice in Elijah Moshinsky’s production at the Strand Theatre
- 1985 Tony Award for Best Performance by a Leading Actor in a Play: Derek Jacobi as Benedick
- 1985 Tony Award Nomination for Best Performance by a Leading Actress in a Play: Sinead Cusack
- 1983 Evening Standard Award: Best Actor: Derek Jacobi
- 1973 Tony Award Nomination for Best Performance by a Leading Actress in a Play: Kathleen Widdoes
- 1973 Tony Award Nomination for Best Performance by a Featured Actor in a Play: Barnard Hughes as Dogberry in the New York Shakespeare Festival production
- 1960 Tony Award Nomination for Best Performance by a Leading Actress in a Play: Margaret Leighton
There is also a play called Score! set around a football club based on the play.
There have been several film versions of Much Ado About Nothing, but almost all of them have been made for television. The first theatrical version in English may have been the 1913 silent film directed by Phillips Smalley. The first major non-silent theatrical version in English was the highly acclaimed 1993 film by Kenneth Branagh, filmed in Tuscany.
In 2005 the BBC adapted the story by setting it in the modern-day studios of Wessex Tonight, a fictional regional news programme, as part of the ShakespeaRe-Told season.
- ^ See textual notes to Much Ado about Nothing in The Norton Shakespeare (W. W. Norton & Company, 1997 ISBN 0-393-97087-6) p. 1387
- ^ F. E. Halliday, A Shakespeare Companion 1564-1964, Baltimore, Penguin, 1964; pp. 326-7.
- ^ See Stephen Greenblatt’s introduction to Much Ado about Nothing in The Norton Shakespeare (W. W. Norton & Company, 1997 ISBN 0-393-97087-6) at p. 1383
- ^ See Gordon Williams "A Glossary of Shakespeare's Sexual Language" (Althone Press, 1997 ISBN 0-485-12130-1) at p.219: "As Shakespeare's title ironically acknowledges, both vagina and virginity are a nothing causing Much Ado."
- ^ See Stephen Greenblatt’s introduction to Much Ado about Nothing in The Norton Shakespeare (W. W. Norton & Company, 1997 ISBN 0-393-97087-6) pp. 1381-2
- Much ado about Nothing - plaintext file from Project Gutenberg
- Much ado about Nothing - HTML version of this title.
- Full text version.
- The IMDb entry on the Branagh movie version
- Much Ado About Nothing A modern re-telling in Flash comic format provided by the Stratford Festival of Canada