Much Ado about Nothing (Vol. 67)
Much Ado about Nothing
See also, Much Ado about Nothing Criticism and Volume 88.
One of Shakespeare’s most popular comedies, Much Ado about Nothing's appeal arises largely from the witty banter and charisma of Beatrice and Benedick, whose antagonistic relationship and eventual courtship are dramatized in the play's subplot. However, the main plot of the play, involving the docile Hero and the boorish Claudio, is often viewed as a dramatic failure. The relationship between these plots, as well as Claudio's role in the problematic main plot, are popular areas of critical study. Debate regarding the play’s genre is also a topic of modern criticism, and many scholars have studied the play’s deviations from the conventions of romantic comedy. Additionally, the characters' use of language and their view of its relation to political and social power, as well as the play's treatment of the problems related to knowledge and perception, garner much scholarly interest. In critiques of film and stage productions of Much Ado about Nothing, issues regarding characterization, genre, and gender are often discussed, particularly in Kenneth Branagh's 1993 film adaptation.
In his overview of Much Ado about Nothing, Sheldon P. Zitner (1993) discusses the nature of the play's plot construction, highlighting the connections between the Hero-Claudio main plot and the Beatrice-Benedick subplot. Zitner observes that the plots are linked through a number of formal devices, including deception, eavesdropping, and overhearing. Additionally, Zitner examines the play's characters, noting the relevance of contemporary Elizabethan marriage customs to Hero’s loyalty and obedience. Zitner contends that Hero’s passivity is in part explained by immaturity, and that many of Claudio's personality traits, including his immaturity, exemplify the “social style of Honour.” Beatrice and Benedick are also studied extensively by Zitner, who notes that the characters' unconventionality and wit set them apart from Hero and Claudio, but are not their only notable characteristics. Zitner comments on Beatrice's rejection and acceptance of various aspects of patriarchal society, noting that her obedience in her marriage to Benedick will have its boundaries. As for Benedick, Zitner observes that his wit is used to mask his fear of marriage and his longing for Beatrice. In John Wain's (1967) analysis of the play, Claudio is cited as the primary cause of the failure of the main plot. Wain states Shakespeare found the character of Claudio “unattractive,” which caused him to create a “cold, proud, self-regarding, inflexible” hero. Likewise, Richard Henze (1971) focuses on the character of Claudio, finding that it is Claudio, not Don John and his dishonesty, nor Beatrice and Benedick in their unconventionality, that poses the most formidable threat to social harmony. Through Claudio, Henze states, Shakespeare depicted the power that malice attains when it appears respectable.
As Zitner points out, the plot of Much Ado about Nothing relies heavily on deception and the misunderstanding it produces. Critics have also studied a related theme—the play’s treatment of knowledge and perception. Critic Nova Myhill (1999) finds that the numerous depictions of deception in the play highlight Shakespeare's methodology for creating different modes of interpretation. Myhill goes on to argue that while the audience typically assumes it possesses a privileged status in terms of eavesdropping, this notion is undercut by the fact that the characters are repeatedly deceived by their belief that eavesdropping has provided them with direct access to truth. Taking another approach, Carl Dennis (1973) explores the two modes of perception he maintains are at work in the play: wit and wisdom. Whereas wit relies on reason and sensory evidence, wisdom, explains Dennis, is related to a belief in intuitive methods of understanding. In the end, Dennis asserts, wit is portrayed as an unreliable mode of perception, and the fate of the characters depends on their willingness to reject what they perceive through their senses and approach life through faith.
The characters’ attitudes toward language and their use of language to achieve various ends is another area of critical concern. Camille Wells Slights (1993) claims that the characters in Much Ado about Nothing view language as the backbone of social harmony and interaction, contending that the play is primarily concerned with the social nature of language, and with the power of language as an instrument and indicator of social and political hierarchy. In her analysis, Slights discusses the ways characters use and view language, observing for example that Beatrice uses language to acquire independence in a patriarchal society, and that both Beatrice and Benedick fear the power of language to deceive and associate this danger with gender roles and sexual relationships. Like Slights, Maurice Hunt (2000) explores the ways in which the characters employ language, particularly patriarchal language—characterized by irreverence, aggression, and authoritarian tone and content. Hunt demonstrates the way in which this type of speech establishes social dominance through the transformation, dismissal, or oppression of the words and thoughts of others. Hunt observes that the male characters, as well as Beatrice, use patriarchal language to assert social dominance.
Concerns regarding the genre of Much Ado about Nothing form another area of critical study. Walter N. King (1964) maintains that the play is a comedy of manners, and that like other plays of this genre its central theme is the examination of a morally “flabby” aristocratic class that accepts the established social codes without question. King notes that the society remains essentially unchanged at the play’s end, which is expected in a comedy of manners where “the social health depends upon compromise, adjustment, resilience, not upon fundamental social change.” The critic further maintains that it is the characters’ use of wit that enables them to achieve social harmony. Approaching the genre issue from another angle, Laurie E. Osborne (1990) examines Shakespeare's incorporation of elements of the Italian novella into the genre of English comedy. Osborne contends that through his linking of these two genres, Shakespeare explored the contradictions within comic conventions and the problems inherent in combining non-comic and non-dramatic materials with comedy.
Critics also explore issues of genre in their evaluation of modern productions of the play, such as Kenneth Branagh's 1993 film adaptation of Much Ado about Nothing. Celestino Deleyto (1997) contends that Branagh's film belongs to the romantic comedy genre, and uses the play to gauge the changes that the genre has undergone in the last four centuries. Deleyto focuses on the sexual politics and gender tension found in the film, and finds that “[t]he culturally ingrained male fear of women is used and reversed by the film in order to produce a happy ending which, … ensures the continuity of the genre’s traditional structure.” Michael J. Collins (1997) also examines Branagh's film, contending that Branagh downplayed the original play's tension regarding gender roles in order to present the film as a typical, popular Hollywood romantic comedy. In modern stage productions, the play receives various treatments. Tom Provenzano (2000) praises the East Los Angeles Classic Theatre adaptation of Much Ado by Tony Plana and Bert Rosario. Provenzano notes the play, geared toward school-age children, was an excellent introduction to Shakespeare for young people. The critic also notes that despite the major textual cuts the production was faithful to Shakespeare's story and language. Critic Charles Isherwood (see Further Reading) offers a mixed appraisal of a 1998 Stratford Festival production, directed by Richard Monette. While Isherwood praises the performances of the middle-aged Beatrice and Benedick, the critic finds the production as a whole “uneven.” Steven Oxman (see Further Reading) reviews the South Coast Repertory presentation of Much Ado about Nothing, directed by Mark Rucker. Oxman applauds the production, and praises the director’s decision to style the play in a manner reminiscent of a Hollywood Golden Age film.
Criticism: Overviews And General Studies
SOURCE: Zitner, Sheldon P. Introduction to Much Ado About Nothing, by William Shakespeare, edited by Sheldon P. Zitner, pp. 1-78. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1993.
[In the following excerpt, Zitner surveys the setting and characters of Much Ado about Nothing and discusses the relationship between the Hero-Claudio main plot and the Beatrice-Benedick subplot.]
PLACE AND SETTING
Unlike many of Shakespeare's plays, Much Ado does not create a strong sense of place. Shakespeare's Messina, as Mario Praz observes, is ‘senz'altro una città imaginaria’.1 It bears no resemblance to Renaissance Messina or any other Italian city of the day. What it does resemble, however, is an Elizabethan town with a simple municipal organization operating under royal charter. Shakespeare's Messina is something of a social backwater; compare the gorgeous wedding gown of the Duchess of Milan with Hero's modest wedding dress which, according to her fashionable gentlewoman, is appropriate to the occasion. There is a provincial overtone in the strain felt by Leonato on receiving Don Pedro and his party; the formality is excessive and observed to be so. Leonato is unused to such exalted guests or to such entertaining. Public rooms, evidently not often open, must be perfumed by specially hired staff (Borachio); for music Leonato must depend on the Prince's man Balthasar. This is hardly...
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Criticism: Character Studies
SOURCE: Wain, John. “The Shakespearean Lie-Detector: Thoughts on Much Ado about Nothing.” Critical Quarterly 9, no. 1 (spring 1967): 27-42.
[In the following essay, Wain investigates the flaws and the novelistic qualities of Much Ado about Nothing, focusing in particular on the weaknesses of the main plot and the play's verse.]
Much Ado about Nothing is a play that might well halt the critic of Shakespeare in his amble through the plays, in much the same way as Hamlet halts him: a strong, buoyant, uneven piece of work. It could not possibly be called a failure, and yet it could not be described as a total success either. I believe the play has interesting things to tell us about the nature of Shakespeare's impulses as an artist, and in particular about the state of his mind in the closing months of the sixteenth century.
This essay will be concerned mainly with two topics: the play's overwhelmingly prosaic nature, its almost complete lack of the poetry which permeates Shakespearean comedy in general; and its novelistic quality, that drive towards three-dimensional characterization which forces us to stand back and allow the characters, at whatever risk, to come out of their dramatic framework; for both of which I hope to suggest plausible reasons.
To begin with the play's undeniable...
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SOURCE: Henze, Richard. “Deception in Much Ado About Nothing.” Studies in English Literature 1500-1900 11, no. 2 (spring 1971): 187-201.
[In the following essay, Henze offers an analysis of Claudio's character that focuses on the threat Claudio poses to social harmony.]
Two major difficulties in Much Ado About Nothing, the question of unity and the character of Claudio, periodically reappear to be resolved or unresolved by the critics. On the first problem, critical opinion has been divided. While some critics feel that there is an inartistic disharmony in the combination of Hero and Claudio with Benedick and Beatrice,1 that the play's serious and comic plots are involved with each other rather than integrated,2 that there is an “inconsistency of purpose,”3 or that the play as we have it represents a less than perfect revision of an earlier play,4 other critics see instead considerable skill in the combination of elements in Much Ado.5 Some critics grant the play a kind of unity by ignoring Beatrice and Benedick or Claudio, but others have dealt with all characters in discovering a single theme. While all critics do not agree that the major theme is deception (some think instead that the play is primarily about such things as the uncertain course of true love6 or the significance of nothing7), most...
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SOURCE: McGrady, Donald. “The Topos of ‘Inversion of Values’ in Hero's Depiction of Beatrice.” Shakespeare Quarterly 44, no. 4 (winter 1993): 472-6.
[In the following essay, McGrady reviews the way Beatrice inverts rhetorical tradition through her persistently negative appraisal of her suitors, and argues that upon overhearing Hero's description of her, Beatrice is made aware of her flaws and is finally able to open herself up to love.]
In act 3, scene 1, of Much Ado About Nothing, Hero incites Beatrice to love Benedick by staging a scene for her to overhear in which Hero censures Beatrice's custom of criticizing all her suitors, of turning their spiritual virtues or physical characteristics into defects:
… I never yet saw man, How wise, how noble, young, how rarely featur'd, But she would spell him backward: if fair-fac'd, She would swear the gentleman should be her sister; If black, why, Nature, drawing of an antic, Made a foul blot; if tall, a lance ill-headed; If low, an agate very vilely cut; If speaking, why, a vane blown with all winds; If silent, why, a block moved with none. So turns she every man the wrong side out, And never gives to truth and virtue that Which simpleness and merit purchaseth.
Hero's tactic is to...
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Criticism: Production Reviews
SOURCE: Branagh, Kenneth. Introduction to Much Ado About Nothing, by William Shakespeare, with Screenplay, Introduction, and Notes on the Making of the Movie by Kenneth Branagh, pp. vi-xvi. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1993.
[In the following essay, Branagh describes his approach to filming Much Ado about Nothing. Branagh discusses his focus on character, comments on the film's casting and his adaptation of the text, and notes that most of the cuts he made were for the purpose of eliminating plot repetition.]
Why make a new film of Much Ado About Nothing? In this century, Shakespeare's play has been produced as a feature film on four occasions. The first was an American silent version in 1926; an East German version was made in 1963, and two Russian films appeared in 1956 and 1973. There have also been television versions, often of notable stage productions like Franco Zeffirelli's in 1967 and Joseph Papp's in 1973. But why no modern cinema version?
Certainly the movie world's financers have always evinced suspicion about the commercial possibilities of Shakespeare on film. Yet ‘popular’ plays like Romeo and Juliet or Hamlet have not only worked spectacularly in film versions by Zeffirelli and Sir Laurence Olivier but have proved commercial enough to be repeated on film many times. There are sixty movie versions of Hamlet.
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SOURCE: Deleyto, Celestino. “Men in Leather: Kenneth Branagh's Much Ado about Nothing and Romantic Comedy.” Cinema Journal 36, no. 3 (spring 1997): 91-105.
[In the following review, Deleyto studies Branagh's treatment of genre and gender issues in his 1993 film adaptation of Much Ado about Nothing.]
Recent writing on romantic comedy has taken the view that the genre has died, been reborn, and reached a peak of popularity in the course of the last fifteen to twenty years. Reacting to Brian Henderson's well-known article on the “agony” of contemporary romantic comedy, Bruce Babington and Peter Evans, for example, affirm the ongoing validity of the genre's basic discourse of celebration of heterosexual love, even while they acknowledge that it has undergone important transformations because it “involves specifics that are in a state of flux in advanced Western cultures.”1 Referring to comedy in general, Andrew Horton likewise notes the consistent popularity of Hollywood comedies in the late eighties,2 while Steve Neale and Frank Krutnik not only speak of a “current revival of romantic comedies”3 but have more specifically distinguished between the “nervous romances” of the late seventies and early eighties—romantic comedies whose uncertainties about the continuing applicability of the genre's conventions often express themselves in a fragmentary...
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SOURCE: Collins, Michael J. “Sleepless in Messina: Kenneth Branagh's Much Ado About Nothing.” Shakespeare Bulletin 15, no. 2 (spring 1997): 38-9.
[In the following review, Collins contends that in his 1993 film version of Much Ado about Nothing, Branagh downplayed the tension regarding gender roles found in Shakespeare’s play in order to present the film as a romantic comedy in the popular Hollywood style.]
The availability of Kenneth Branagh's Much Ado About Nothing on videotape has provided me a way of exploring some of the issues involved in staging Shakespeare's comedies. As many people have pointed out, Claudio's question to Don Pedro in 1.1, “Hath Leonato any son, my Lord,” and the Prince's reply, “No child but Hero; she's his only heir” (284-85), open up the possibility that Claudio's interest in Hero (despite his declaration of love in the lines that follow) is, to some degree, financial as well as romantic. At the same time, no matter how much he may love his daughter, Leonato seems to appreciate that her marriage to Don Pedro will bring about a desirable “alliance” (to use Beatrice's word in 2.1.314); for when Antonio mistakenly informs him that the Prince loves Hero (1.2), he says, “We will hold it as a dream till it appear itself. But I will acquaint my daughter withal, that she may be better prepared for an answer” (18-21). Later, in 2.1.65-67, he...
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SOURCE: Provenzano, Tom. “Much Ado About Nothing: Mariachi Style.” Theatre Journal 52, no. 1 (March 2000): 118-19.
[In the following review, Provenzano assesses a 1999 East Los Angeles Classic Theatre adaptation of the play Much Ado about Nothing by Tony Plana and Bert Rosario, describing the production as an excellent introduction to Shakespeare for young people.]
Truncated versions of Shakespeare's canon provide millions of school-age children their first experiences with classic theatre while fulfilling the artistic desires and commercial needs of youth theatre companies across the country. Few of these outings, however, create the rich cultural events that East Los Angeles Classic Theatre has been furnishing since 1995. Currently, the company's touring “mariachi-style” adaptation of Much Ado About Nothing is an exquisite young-people's introduction to the Bard—remarkably without condescension. While director Tony Plana and Bert Rosario have strategically cut the play to a blazing seventy minutes, it retains every important story point. Even the play's darker moments of sexual betrayal and death are not eradicated for adolescent audiences; rather, they are presented with simplicity and discernment, so parents can feel assured of the humanity behind the messages being delivered. The adaptation is essentially faithful to the integrity of Shakespeare's language, but often...
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SOURCE: King, Walter N. “Much Ado About Something.” Shakespeare Quarterly 15 (1964): 143-55.
[In the following essay, King maintains that Much Ado about Nothing is a comedy of manners, and that like other plays of this genre its central theme is the examination of a morally “flabby” aristocratic class that accepts the established social codes without question.]
What to do with Much Ado About Nothing has bedeviled Shakespearians for longer than one likes to think. And no wonder, when critics dismiss the play, if only by implication, as a charming potboiler, archly comic for the most part, but, in Acts IV and V, oddly tragicomic and melodramatic, and unconvincing.
Reaction against this usually disguised conviction varies, of course. G. B. Harrison shrugs the whole thing off as a diverting entertainment, “but for all that, as it turns out, ‘much ado about nothing’”.1 John Palmer is somewhat more complimentary; “this most brilliant but least profound” of Shakespeare's comedies is one of his “greatest triumphs as a dramatic craftsman, showing what he can do when his genius is not half engaged and he falls back on his technical skill as a playright.”2 C. L. Barber in his study of Shakespearian comedy is almost cavalier in his light-hearted apology for ignoring the play altogether, except for comments...
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SOURCE: Dennis, Carl. “Wit and Wisdom in Much Ado About Nothing.” Studies in English Literature, 1500-1900 13, no. 2 (spring 1973): 223-37.
[In the following essay, Dennis explores the two modes of perception he maintains are at work in Much Ado about Nothing: wit and wisdom. In the end, Dennis asserts, wit is portrayed as an unreliable mode of perception.]
Recent critics of Much Ado About Nothing have tended to agree with Mr. Graham Storey's convincing suggestion that the play is about “man's irrestible propensity to be taken in by appearances.”1 “Deception,” Mr. Storey writes, “operates at every level of Much Ado: it is the common denominator of the three plots, and its mechanism—eavesdroppings, mistakes of identity, disguises and maskings, exploited heresay—are the stuff of the play.”2 What causes the characters to be so often deceived is one of the central critical questions that the play raises. Mr. Storey attributes all the confusion to man's innate “giddiness,” following Benedick's concluding assertion that “man is a giddy thing” (V.iv.107); but the term is perhaps too imprecise to clarify the particular limitations of the protagonists.3 Perhaps a more helpful suggestion is made by Mr. A. P. Rossiter, who considers almost all the characters to be “self-willed, self-centered, and self-admiring creatures,...
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SOURCE: Osborne, Laurie E. “Dramatic Play in Much Ado about Nothing: Wedding in the Italian Novella and English Comedy.” Philological Quarterly 69, no. 2 (spring 1990): 167-88.
[In the following essay, Osborne analyzes Much Ado about Nothing as an integration of the Italian novella and the English comedy. Osborne asserts that through his linking of these two genres, Shakespeare explored the contradictions within comic conventions and the problems inherent in combining non-comic and non-dramatic materials with comedy.]
In Much Ado about Nothing, Shakespeare creates two plots from a single principal source—the slandered maiden tale which Ariosto and Bandello both treat.1 One plot, the story of Hero, up to the end of the comedy, imitates the action of the original Italian novellas and their interesting villain, while the other, the story of the courtship of Beatrice and Benedick, which is Shakespeare's creation, refashions the main plot and its dramatist manipulator according to comic principles.
The relationship between these two plots is most frequently discussed—or dismissed—in light of the two pairs of lovers. Charles Prouty claims that the couples each represent different “realistic” views of love. In the courtship of Hero and Claudio, he sees a Renaissance commonplace, the marriage of convenience, and in Beatrice and...
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SOURCE: Slights, Camille Wells. “The Unauthorized Language of Much Ado About Nothing.” In Shakespeare's Comic Commonwealth, pp. 171-89. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1993.
[In the following essay, Slights asserts that one of the main concerns of Much Ado about Nothing is the social nature of language and its relationship to hierarchical social and political power.]
‘and two men ride of a horse, one must ride behind’
In the first scene of Much Ado About Nothing, when Claudio and Don Pedro make fun of Benedick's use of a conventional verbal formula, Benedick retorts: ‘Nay, mock not, mock not. The body of your discourse is sometime guarded with fragments, and the guards are but slightly basted on neither. Ere you flout old ends any further, examine your conscience’ (I.i.285-9). When Benedick accuses his friends of guarding their discourse with fragments that are ‘but slightly basted on,’ his attack is both rhetorical and moral. Assuming the value of elegant language, he claims that Don Pedro and Claudio also resort to ‘old ends’ of conventional verbal formulas and, moreover, fail to integrate them gracefully into their own language. At the same time, he implies that these ‘fragments’ that ‘guard,’ that is, decorate and/or protect, are inauthentic embellishments on the true body of their discourse. The pun...
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SOURCE: Myhill, Nova. “Spectatorship in/of Much Ado About Nothing.” Studies in English Literature, 1500-1900 39, no. 2 (spring 1999): 291-311.
[In the following essay, Myhill observes that Much Ado about Nothing is centrally concerned with the problems related to knowledge and perception, and argues that the depiction in the play of numerous deceptions highlights Shakespeare's methodology for creating different modes of interpretation.]
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...
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SOURCE: Hunt, Maurice. “The Reclamation of Language in Much Ado about Nothing.” Studies in Philology 97, no. 2 (spring 2000): 165-91.
[In the following essay, Hunt studies the characters' usage of patriarchal speech in Much Ado about Nothing, demonstrating the way in which this type of speech establishes social dominance through the transformation, dismissal, or oppression of the words and thoughts of others.]
Interpreters of Much Ado about Nothing have often remarked that Shakespeare focuses in this middle comedy upon the faculty of hearing. And indeed “nothing,” in its senses of listening and eavesdropping, does much to complicate and unravel the play's fable.1 What is rarely noted in accounts of Much Ado is the dependence of hearing upon speaking, the possibility that Shakespeare may also dramatize the potential of speech to exasperate and resolve humankind's wishes and schemes, especially as they involve romantic love. Repeatedly the language of Much Ado illustrates the fact that expression often becomes disjoined from meaning. “The body of your discourse is sometime guarded with fragments [trimmed with odds and ends],” Benedick tells jesting Don Pedro, “and the guards are but slightly basted on neither” (1.1.265-66).2 Anne Barton takes Benedick's quip to mean that “the trimmings” of Don Pedro's speech “are very insecurely...
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Dawson, Anthony B. “Much Ado About Signifying.” Studies in English Literature, 1500-1900 22, no. 2 (spring 1982): 211-22.
Investigates the role of messages in the play, including an examination of the characters who deliver the messages, and the ways in which the messages are received, interpreted, and misinterpreted.
Hassel, R. Chris, Jr. “‘Man Is a Giddy Thing’: Repentance and Faith in Much Ado about Nothing.” In Faith and Folly in Shakespeare's Romantic Comedies, pp. 77-109. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1980.
Studies the thematic and structural relevance of Christian doctrine relating to the treatment of humility and faith in Much Ado about Nothing.
Isherwood, Charles. Review of Much Ado about Nothing. Variety 373, no. 2 (23-29 November 1998): 56-7.
Offers a mixed appraisal of the 1998 Stratford Festival production of Much Ado about Nothing, directed by Richard Monette. While Isherwood praises the performances of the middle-aged Beatrice and Benedick, the critic finds the production as a whole “uneven.”
Leggatt, Alexander. “Much Ado About Nothing.” In Shakespeare's Comedy of Love, pp. 151-84. London: Methuen, 1982.
Suggests that in Much Ado about Nothing Shakespeare intended to...
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