Although there has been some speculation that Much Ado about Nothing may be a heavily revised version of a play that Shakespeare wrote earlier in his career (a "lost" work that is often referred to as Love's Labour Won), Much Ado was probably written by Shakespeare in 1598 or shortly thereafter. This would make Much Ado one of Shakespeare's later comedies. Unlike his earliest comedic works, the humor of Much Ado about Nothing does not depend upon funny situations. While it shares some standard devices with those earlier plays (misperceptions, disguises, false reports), the comedy of Much Ado derives from the characters themselves and the manners of the highly-mannered society in which they live.
And while the main plot of Much Ado revolves around obstacles to the union of two young lovers (Claudio and Hero), the plays sub-plot, the "merry war" of the sexes between Beatrice and Benedick, is much more interesting and entertaining by comparison. Indeed, the play was staged for a long period of time under the title of Beatrice and Benedick. Especially when set alongside the conventional, even two-dimensional lovers of the main plot, Beatrice and Benedick display a carefully matched intelligence, humor, and humanity that is unmatched among the couples who people Shakespeare's comedies. Beatrice and Benedick aside, Much Ado has been the object of sharp criticism from several modern Shakespeare scholars, the gist of their complaint being that it lacks a unifying dramatic conception. More pointedly, while Much Ado is comic, it also has some disturbing elements. That being so, it is often classified as a "problem play," akin to The Merchant of Venice in raising the possibility of a tragic ending and in presenting us with "good" characters, like Claudio, who nonetheless act "badly."
Summary of the Play
The play is set in and near the house of Leonato, governor of Messina, Sicily. Prince Don Pedro of Aragon with his favorite, Claudio, and Benedick, young cavalier of Padua, as well as Don John, the bastard brother of Don Pedro, come to Leonato's. Claudio instantly falls in love with Hero (her name means chaste), Leonato's only child, whom Don Pedro formally obtains for him. While they wait for the wedding day, they amuse themselves by gulling Benedick and Beatrice (Leonato's niece), verbal adversaries who share a merry wit and a contempt for conventional love, into believing that they are hopelessly in love with each other.
Meanwhile, Don John, an envious and mischief-making malcontent, plots to break the match between Claudio and Hero and employs Conrade and Borachio to assist him. After planting the suspicion in the minds of Claudio and the Prince that Hero is wanton, Don John confirms it by having Borachio talk to Hero's maid, Margaret, at the chamber window at midnight, as if she were Hero. Convinced by this hoax, Claudio and Don Pedro disgrace Hero before the altar at the wedding, rejecting her as unchaste. Shocked by the allegation, which her father readily accepts, Hero swoons away, and the priest, who believes in her innocence, intervenes. At his suggestion, she is secretly sent to her uncle's home and publicly reported dead in order to soften the hearts of her accusers as well as lessen the impact of gossip. Leonato is grief-stricken.
Benedick and Beatrice, their sharp wit blunted by the pain of the slander, honestly confess their love for each other before the same altar. Benedick proves his love by challenging his friend Claudio to a duel to requite the honor of Beatrice's cousin, Hero. Borachio, overheard by the watch as he boasts of his false meeting with Hero to Conrade, is taken into the custody of Constable Dogberry and clears Hero; but Don John has fled. Her innocence confirmed, her father, satisfied with Claudio's penitent demeanor, directs him to hang verses on her tomb that night and marry his niece, sight unseen, the next morning, which Claudio agrees to do in a double wedding with Beatrice and Benedict. He joyfully discovers that the masked lady he has promised to marry is Hero. The play ends with an account of Don John being detained by the local authorities.
Estimated Reading Time
Much Ado about Nothing was written to be performed before an audience, without intermission, in less than three hours. Allow your imagination full sway in a straight-through, first reading to grasp the plot and characters. This should take about three hours. To understand the play's nuances, reread it and take note of the usage of each word glossed at the bottom of the text. This should take about one hour per act. Observe how the syntax assigned to each character reveals their pattern of thought. Give yourself enough time to explore the play. While you enjoy the humor, language, and the composition, chuckle along with Shakespeare at our human vanities.
You can use audiotapes, available at libraries, to follow the text and hear the changing rhythms of verse and prose that this play is famous for. Video taped performances are also available. Study groups may easily read the piece aloud.
Summary (Masterplots, Fourth Edition)
Don Pedro, prince of Arragon, arrives in Messina accompanied by his bastard brother, Don John, and his two friends, the young Italian noblemen Claudio and Benedick. Don Pedro had vanquished his brother in battle. Now, reconciled, the brothers plan to visit Leonato before returning to their homeland. On their arrival in Messina, young Claudio is immediately smitten by the lovely Hero, daughter of Leonato, the governor of Messina. To help his faithful young friend in his suit, Don Pedro assumes the guise of Claudio at a masked ball and woos Hero in Claudio’s name. Then he gains Leonato’s consent for Claudio and Hero to marry. Don John tries to cause trouble by persuading Claudio that Don Pedro means to betray him and keep Hero for himself, but the villain is foiled in his plot and Claudio remains faithful to Don Pedro.
Benedick, the other young follower of Don Pedro, is a confirmed and bitter bachelor who scorns all men willing to enter the married state. No less opposed to men and matrimony is Leonato’s niece, Beatrice. These two constantly spar with one another, each trying to show intellectual supremacy over the other. Don Pedro, with the help of Hero, Claudio, and Leonato, undertakes the seemingly impossible task of bringing Benedick and Beatrice together in matrimony in the seven days before the marriage of Hero and Claudio.
Don John, thwarted in his first attempt to cause disharmony, forms another plot. With the help of a servant, he arranges to make it appear as if Hero is being unfaithful to Claudio. The servant is to gain entrance to Hero’s chambers when she is away. In her place will be her attendant, assuming Hero’s clothes. Don John, posing as Claudio’s true friend, will inform him of her unfaithfulness and lead him to Hero’s window to witness her wanton disloyalty.
Don Pedro pursues his plan to persuade Benedick and Beatrice to stop quarreling and fall in love with each other. When Benedick is close by, thinking himself unseen, Don Pedro, Claudio, and Leonato talk of their great sympathy for Beatrice, who loves Benedick but is unloved in return. The three tell one another of the love letters Beatrice had written to Benedick and had then torn up, and that Beatrice beats her breast and sobs over her unrequited love for Benedick. At the same time, on occasions when Beatrice is nearby but apparently unseen, Hero and her maid tell...
(The entire section is 975 words.)
Act and Scene Summary and Analysis
Preface to the Summary
Preface to the Summary:
Trying to follow the multiple, interwoven narrative lines of Much Ado About Nothing from this summary (or even the written text itself), may prove frustrating. To simplify matters, it is useful to observe that three distinct plots or schemes unfold within the play. For the sake of convenience, we can speak of "plot A" ("A" standing, perhaps, for "abbreviated"), "plot B" ("B" for "Beatrice and Benedick"), and "plot C" ("C" for "central"). In plot A, having learned that his good brother, Don Pedro, intends to court Hero at a masked ball on behalf of his young lieutenant, Claudio, the villain of the play, Don John schemes to convince Claudio that Don Pedro actually intends to have Hero for himself. This half-baked plot is abbreviated or aborted in Act II, coming to naught when all of the good characters agree on Claudio's proposal of marriage to Hero. Plot B develops immediately thereafter as the good characters in the play (including Don Pedro, Claudio, and Hero) form a benign conspiracy meant to bring Beatrice and Benedick to the marriage altar. This plan ultimately succeeds. Concurrently, the malcontent Don John and his principal henchman, Borachio, launch Plot C. They stage a romantic meeting between Borachio and Hero's serving-woman, Margaret, who play the parts of an unknown lover and Hero, to demonstrate Hero's infidelity to Claudio and Don Pedro. This leads to a very bad scene at the wedding chapel as...
(The entire section is 465 words.)
Act I, Scene 1 Summary and Analysis
New Characters: Leonato: governor of Messina and father of Hero, a man of manners and hospitality, whose conventionality will be tested by the depth of his grief
Hero: Leonato's only child, a docile and conventional young woman, honored for her chastity
Beatrice: Leonato's spirited niece, gifted with a brilliant wit and interested in Benedick
Messenger: brings news of Prince Don Pedro's victory and approach to Messina
Don Pedro: prince of Aragon, who victoriously return from battle against his illegitimate brother for his throne; Leonato's guest during his stay in Messina and enjoys matchmaking
Claudio: young count, Don Pedro's courageous right-hand man,...
(The entire section is 832 words.)
Act I, Scene 2 Summary and Analysis
New Character: Antonio: Leonato's brother
In Leonato's house, Antonio advises his brother that his servant overheard the prince, Don Pedro, tell Claudio that he loved Hero and that he would reveal this to her at the dance to be held at Leonato's house that night. And, if she found him suitable, he would request her hand from Leonato. Leonato asks Antonio to convey this information to Hero, so she can also prepare her answer should the report he has just heard be true.
Noting which can mean observing, overhearing, and musical notation) is an obvious pun in the title (Elizabethans pronounced nothing/noting alike) and is central to...
(The entire section is 253 words.)
Act I, Scene 3 Summary and Analysis
New Characters: Conrade: Don John's companion, who assumes the position of advisor
Borachio: Don John's companion, recently employed by Leonato, who will play a major role in the slander of Hero
We are still at Leonato's house. Conrade greets Don John, only to find him in a foul mood. When he attempts to reason Don John out of his misery; Don John takes a perverse and self-willed stance. Conrade advises Don John that he needs to bide his time, reminding him that he is too recently taken back in Don Pedro's good graces, after having confronted him in battle, before resuming his mischief. Don John insists on following his own course, stating that his...
(The entire section is 381 words.)
Act II, Scene 1 Summary and Analysis
New Characters: Margaret and Ursula: waiting gentlewomen to Hero
While Leonato's household awaits the arrival of the maskers, Beatrice tells us that no man is her match and she advises Hero on how to answer the prince when he seeks her hand. The maskers arrive and we are treated to a variety of deceits as they dance. Don Pedro, pretending to be Claudio, takes Hero aside. Beatrice, pretending that she does not know that she is speaking with Benedick, uses the opportunity to call him a fool. All exit except Don John, Borachio, and Claudio.
Don John and Borachio purposefully mistake Claudio for Benedick and tell him that Don Pedro is in love with Hero and swore he...
(The entire section is 593 words.)
Act II, Scene 2 Summary and Analysis
Borachio tells Don John that he can cross the marriage of Claudio and Hero. Don John jumps at the opportunity. Borachio lays out his plan to have Margaret, Hero's waiting-gentlewoman, look out her mistress' window the night before the wedding and be mistaken for Hero, while he, Borachio, woos her. He directs Don John to tell Don Pedro that he has dishonored himself by arranging a marriage between Claudio and a common trollop, and then offer him proof of Hero's disloyalty by bringing him to witness the staged deceit. Don John accepts the plan and offers Borachio a fee of a thousand ducats.
Borachio, recently employed as a perfumer at Leonato's, is the...
(The entire section is 263 words.)
Act II, Scene 3 Summary and Analysis
New Character: Boy: sent by Benedick to fetch a book
The scene takes place in Leonato's garden. Benedick reflects on love and marriage. He hides himself in the arbor when Don Pedro, Leonato, and Claudio enter. Pretending not to note his presence, they listen as Balthasar sings a song about the deceptions of men. Then they speak of Beatrice's love for Benedick, which they claim they learned from Hero. Benedick does not believe it to be a gull because Leonato is involved. They detail the depth of Beatrice's passion and frustration, fearful that she will harm herself because of it, then list her virtues. They agree that Benedick is too scornful to be told of the matter and...
(The entire section is 793 words.)
Act III, Scene 1 Summary and Analysis
The scene takes place in the garden. Hero sets the trap for Beatrice by sending Margaret to tell Beatrice that she is the subject of Hero and Ursula's gossip. Beatrice appears instantly and follows them, hidden among the honeysuckle, to eavesdrop. Hero and Ursula speak of Benedick's unrequited love for Beatrice and Beatrice's disdainful scorn for Benedick. They speak of Benedick's virtues and Beatrice's faults, concluding that Beatrice is too self-endeared to be told of the matter. Hero, feigning exasperation, tells Ursula that she will devise some honest slander to poison Benedick's love for Beatrice and thereby save him from wasting away with love. Alone, reflecting on what she has just heard,...
(The entire section is 386 words.)
Act III, Scene 2 Summary and Analysis
It is the night before the wedding. Don Pedro announces he will depart for Aragon right after the nuptials. He refuses Claudio's offer to accompany him. Don Pedro and Claudio observe a change in Benedick, including a shaved face and pristine habits of personal hygiene, and tease him about it. Benedick, unusually sober in demeanor, protests that he has a toothache. He invites Leonato to walk with him in order to enter into a short but private conversation. Don John enters. He tells Don Pedro and Claudio that Hero is disloyal and invites them to go with him to witness her chamber window entered that night at midnight. Claudio vows to shame Hero before the congregation if he witnesses such disloyalty...
(The entire section is 642 words.)
Act III, Scene 3 Summary and Analysis
New Characters: Dogberry: illiterate master constable, whose love of high--faluting words is only matched by his misuse of them, he exposes the slanderous deception, thereby saving Hero
Verges: headborough, or parish constable, Dogberry's elderly companion
First Watchman and Second Watchman (George Seacoal):
Dogberry's assistant, who providentially overhear Borachio describe the details of the deception perpetrated upon Hero
The scene takes place at night, on the street, to the side of the door of Leonato's house. Master Constable Dogberry, bearing a lantern, and his elder compartner, Verges, arrive with the watch. Dogberry gives them...
(The entire section is 1035 words.)
Act III, Scene 4 Summary and Analysis
The scene is set in the sitting room adjacent to Hero's bedchamber. Hero sends Ursula to wake up Beatrice and tell her to come to the sitting room. Hero and Margaret discuss what she will wear. Beatrice arrives, sick, and tells Hero it is time to dress for the wedding. Margaret teasingly suggests to Beatrice that she take the herb, carduus benedictus, for her malady. Ursula returns to announce that the wedding party is ready to escort Hero to the church. The women hasten to the bed-chamber to dress her.
This innocent prose scene, on the morning before the wedding, softens us to empathize with Hero. Margaret does not want Hero to wear a certain rebato,...
(The entire section is 268 words.)
Act III, Scene 5 Summary and Analysis
New Character: Messenger: calls Leonato to the wedding.
The scene takes place in the hail in Leonato's house. Dogberry and Verges visit Leonato just as he is about to leave for the wedding. They chatter, trying Leonato's patience. Finally they tell him that they apprehended two suspicious characters who they want to have examined that morning before him. Leonato instructs them to take the examination and bring it to him. Leonato leaves to give Hero in marriage. Dogberry instructs Verges to send for Francis Seacoal, the sexton, to write down the examination which they will take at the jail.
Shakespeare provides us with the most...
(The entire section is 366 words.)
Act IV Scene 1 Summary and Analysis
Friar Francis: priest at the nuptials of Claudio and Hero, who devises a plan to change the hearts of Claudio and Don Pedro and reverse the effects of the slander
Attendants: the bridal party
This scene takes place before the altar in the church. Claudio contemptuously rejects Hero as a proved wanton. Leonato assumes that Claudio took Hero's virginity, which Claudio denies. Leonato appeals to the prince but Don Pedro, echoed by his brother, Don John, confirms Claudio's accusation. Claudio interrogates Hero about the man he saw at her window the night before. Hero denies the encounter. Claudio vows to love no more. Leonato seeks to be...
(The entire section is 1366 words.)
Act IV, Scene 2 Summary and Analysis
Sexton (Francis Seacoal): town clerk, a learned writer who, taking down the examination of Borachio and Conrade, recognizes the importance of its contents and immediately delivers it to Leonato
This scene takes place at the jail. Dogberry, under the direction of the sexton, examines Borachio and Conrade. Speaking directly into Borachio's ear, Dogberry accuses him and Conrade of false knavery, which Borachio denies. The first watch and Seacoal testify that they heard Borachio confess to receiving a thousand ducats from Don John for slandering Hero. The sexton announces that Don John fled after Hero was accused and refused and that Hero, upon the grief...
(The entire section is 555 words.)
Act V, Scene 1 Summary and Analysis
The scene takes place in the street before the house of Leonato. Antonio tries to philosophize his brother, Leonato, out of his grief. Leonato says that his passion cannot be patched with proverbs and bids him to cease his counsel. Antonio advises him to make those who have harmed him suffer also, and Leonato vows to defend Hero's honor. At this point Claudio and Don Pedro cross their path. Both Leonato and Antonio challenge Claudio for the villainy of slandering Hero to death. Don Pedro tells them the charge against Hero was full of proof and refuses to listen further. Vowing that he will be heard, Leonato exits with his brother just as Benedick arrives.
Claudio and Don Pedro seek...
(The entire section is 1545 words.)
Act V, Scene 2 Summary and Analysis
Benedick and Margaret meet outside Leonato's house. He bids her to call Beatrice to him and unsuccessfully attempts a sonnet. Beatrice complies with his request immediately. When Benedick toyfully marks (notes) that she comes when bidden, she bids him to tell her what has passed between he and Claudio. Benedick reports that Claudio undergoes his challenge. A witty interchange ensues as each seeks the other to tell the virtues for which they are loved and concludes with Benedick's declaration that they are "too wise to woo peaceably." Ursula appears to call them to Leonato's, with the news that Hero has been cleared, Don Pedro and Claudio were absolved, and Don John declared the villain.
(The entire section is 363 words.)
Act V, Scene 3 Summary and Analysis
Claudio and Don Pedro, accompanied by a party of lords and musicians, arrive at the monument of Leonato to perform a public mourning for Hero. Claudio reads an epitaph which declares her innocence and then hangs it up at her tomb. Balthasar sings a hymn to Diana, patroness of chastity, entreating her to forgive Hero's slanderers. Claudio vows to do the rite yearly. At dawn the mourners leave, each going their separate way. Claudio and Don Pedro will change their garments and go to Leonato's for the wedding.
The redemption scene, with its epitaph, song, and dialogue, is wholly in rhyme with the exception of the first two lines. At midnight our penitents...
(The entire section is 333 words.)
Act V, Scene 4 Summary and Analysis
This scene takes place in the hall in Leonato's house. Musicians are seated in the gallery. Hero, the prince, and Claudio have been declared innocent, and Margaret in some fault for the slander. Benedick is relieved that he need no longer keep Claudio under his challenge. Leonato directs Hero and the other ladies to withdraw and return, masked, when he sends for them. He directs Antonio to play the father of the bride. When Benedick asks Leonato for Beatrice's hand in marriage and Leonato exposes the double gull, Benedick, though nonplussed at Leonato's answer, reaffirms his request and receives Leonato's blessing.
Prince Don Pedro and Claudio arrive with attendants. Claudio answers in the...
(The entire section is 1390 words.)