Much Ado about Nothing (Vol. 88)
Much Ado about Nothing
See also Much Ado about Nothing Criticism (Volume 78).
One of Shakespeare's most popular romantic comedies, Much Ado about Nothing (c. 1598) features a dual plot of courtship and deception resolved in typical Shakespearean comic fashion—with reconciliation, marriage, and celebration. Set in Messina, the drama centers on the wooing of young, beautiful Hero by the soldier-courtier Claudio, a courtship temporarily halted by the scheming of the play's ostensible villain, Don John. In a parallel plot, the reluctant lovers Beatrice and Benedick engage in a sustained battle of verbal wit before eventually recognizing their affection for one another. Scholars have recognized a strain of melancholy beneath the play's merriment, however, and note that the work functions simultaneously as both a lighthearted comedy and a near-tragic cautionary tale of deceit and miscommunication. Modern audiences tend to identify most with the Beatrice-Benedick subplot, frequently dismissing the boorish Claudio and the docile Hero as immature and less interesting figures. In addition to the play's characters, critics are interested in the relationship between the two plots, as well as the play's themes of deception and social responsibility.
Critical and popular consensus finds Beatrice and Benedick as the two most compelling characters in Much Ado about Nothing, despite their relegation to what scholars view as the drama's humorous subplot. While this witty pair continues to elicit a considerable share of study, commentators are also interested in the sources and dynamics of Shakespeare's Hero-Claudio pairing as well as the play's darker, more disturbing characters. Charles T. Prouty (1950) investigates the sixteenth-century literary sources of Much Ado about Nothing's couples, identifying the models for Claudio-Hero and Beatrice-Benedick. Prouty notes that Claudio strongly departs from the conventional romantic lover in his caddish behavior, while Hero reflects a state of near total passivity, extreme even for a romance heroine. Prouty contends that Benedick and Beatrice, by contrast, appear to have no strict parallels in prior romance literature. A. R. Humphreys (1981) surveys Much Ado's romance sources, which include Ariosto's Orlando Furioso (1516), Matteo Bandello's La Prima Parte de le Novelle (1554), and Belleforest's Le Troisième Tome des Histories Extraites des oeuvres Italiennes de Bandel (1569). Like Prouty, Humphreys comments on Shakespeare's adaptation and alteration of these and other texts in crafting Beatrice, Benedick, Claudio, and Hero, as well as Dogberry and his comical Watch. Richard A. Levin (1985) suspects that something disturbing is at work under the surface of the happy romance in Much Ado about Nothing and attempts to uncover the negative aspects of character in the drama. Levin is drawn to the play's principal plotters, Don Pedro and Don John, as well as to Claudio's inexplicably bad behavior and Benedick's moral uncertainty. The critic also comments on Leonato's eagerness to shift all blame in the drama onto Don John, thereby procuring a perfunctory and far from seamless happy ending.
Since its first performance near the end of the sixteenth century, Much Ado about Nothing has enjoyed a nearly uninterrupted reputation as one of Shakespeare's most popular dramas on the stage. The play continues to be staged with relative frequency, and several major productions of Much Ado about Nothing in the early years of the twenty-first century attest to its continuing appeal. Sarah Hemming (2002) reviews Gregory Doran's Royal Shakespeare Company staging of Much Ado about Nothing, which evoked a brooding, honor-bound, and masculine world dominated by the ethos of the mafia crime organization. Hemming contends that Doran's interpretation was unable to adequately link the dark and comic aspects of Shakespeare's drama. Patrick Carnegy (2002) offers a more positive review of Doran's dark vision of Much Ado about Nothing, suggesting that the director crafted a delicate balance between the drama's urbane comedy and sinister undertones. Also reviewing Doran's production, Russell Jackson (2003) admires the director's handling of the drama's bleaker moments, in which he “staged the unhappiest scenes of the play forcefully but without melodrama.” In the United States, Mark Lamos directed a much different staging of Much Ado about Nothing for the Shakespeare Theatre in Washington, D.C. Gabriella Boston (2002) comments on Lamos's charming fulfillment of Shakespeare's work, here set at the height of the Jazz Age, noting that the production underscored the play's comic rather than its menacing elements. Freddi Lipstein's (2003), however, gives a less favorable review of Lamos's staging, noting that the director relied on low comedy to carry the play. Martha Tuck Rozett (2003) reviews director Daniela Varon's Shakespeare and Company production of Much Ado about Nothing staged at the Founders' Theater in Lenox, Massachusetts. Rozett praises Varon's fine realization of the play's festive qualities and comic virtuosity.
Much Ado about Nothing is an immensely entertaining comedy that confronts a wide range of issues, including themes of deception and social responsibility. In his overview of Much Ado about Nothing, G. K. Hunter (see Further Reading) describes the drama as a tragicomedy concerned with the themes of self-deception, self-dramatization, self-love, and self-awareness. Michael Taylor (see Further Reading) explores the conflict between individualism and social responsibility depicted in Much Ado about Nothing, with particular regard to the figures of Don John, Claudio, Beatrice, and Benedick. In his 1982 study, Philip Traci examines the motif of meddling in the affairs of others, particularly with respect to the romantic relationship between Beatrice and Benedick. Traci suggests that the play can be seen as either Shakespeare's happiest comedy or one of his most cynical, depending on the view one holds of the relative merits of intervention and Providence. Morriss Henry Partee (1992) probes the thematic conflicts of Much Ado about Nothing by exploring the play's structural tensions between comedy and tragedy. In addition, Partee examines the function of the Beatrice-Benedick subplot as a device that steers the story away from its more disturbing concerns—including adultery, illegitimacy, and sexual transgression—in order to highlight the play's themes of reconciliation, joy, and matrimony.
Criticism: Overviews And General Studies
SOURCE: Humphreys, A. R., ed. Introduction to The Arden Shakespeare: Much Ado about Nothing, by William Shakespeare, pp. 1-84. London: Methuen, 1981.
[In the following excerpt, Humphreys surveys the principal literary sources for Shakespeare's Much Ado about Nothing.]
(I) CLAUDIO AND HERO
Stories of the lover deceived by a rival or enemy into believing his beloved false are widespread and of great antiquity. An analogue of the Claudio-Hero plot has been traced back to a fifth-century Greek romance by Chariton, Chaereas and Kallirrhoe. Seventeen Renaissance versions, narrative or dramatic, are recorded before Shakespeare's, in Spanish, Italian, French, German, and English. They include the fifteenth-century Spanish Tirant lo Blanch (Tirant the White) by Juan Martorell, which probably lies behind Ariosto's version in the fifth canto of Orlando Furioso (1516).1 Ariosto's lovers are named Ariodante and Genevra. His story, first translated into English and much elaborated in Peter Beverley's poem, The Historie of Ariodanto and Ieneura (c. 1566),2 was further translated by Sir John Harington as Orlando Furioso in English Heroical Verse (1591). From Ariosto, Spenser derived his own very different version, which ends in disaster instead of the lovers' reunion; it tells how...
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Criticism: Character Studies
SOURCE: Prouty, Charles T. “The Play.” In The Sources of Much Ado about Nothing: A Critical Study, pp. 33-64. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1950.
[In the following excerpt, Prouty investigates the sixteenth-century literary sources for the characters in Much Ado about Nothing.]
At first glance there seems to be no connection between the two plots [of Much Ado About Nothing] except for the appearance of Hero and Claudio as agents in the tricking of Benedick and Beatrice, and it has been this seeming lack of integration which has been considered a weakness of the play or has led to the suggestion that the quarreling lovers were put in to liven up a rather somber story. If we keep in mind the careful manipulation of plot which has been demonstrated in connection with Dogberry, it should be reasonable to assume that there is some design in the rest of the play. One may object that if there were any such design it should be apparent and should have been noted long ago. As a general premise such an objection is not one to be tossed aside lightly, but in this case there does seem to be an acceptable explanation. Briefly, the reason why the design has not been perceived is that the true nature of Claudio and Hero and their relationship has been misunderstood. Perhaps the truth might be gleaned from a careful reading of the play, but the reader would need to be well versed in the...
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SOURCE: Levin, Richard A. “Crime and Cover-up in Messina.” In Modern Critical Interpretations: William Shakespeare's Much Ado about Nothing, edited by Harold Bloom, pp. 71-104. New York: Chelsea House Publishers, 1988.
[In the following essay, originally published in 1985, Levin analyzes character interaction in Much Ado about Nothing, considering the unseemly behavior of Don Pedro and Claudio, the developing relationship between Beatrice and Benedick, the scapegoating of Don John, and Leonato's attempt to provide the drama with a happy ending.]
Is Much Ado about Nothing a disturbing comedy? The strongest evidence that it is comes in act 4, when Claudio denounces his bride-to-be at the altar for unchastity. Claudio's conduct on this occasion leaves much to be desired, and other characters also behave poorly, including Don Pedro, Claudio's friend and patron, and Leonato, father of the prospective bride. Though critics often extenuate what they regard as the momentary transgression of Leonato and Don Pedro, Claudio has not escaped so easily. Though the wedding scene exhibits him at his worst, Claudio's overall performance has attracted, as one critic remarks, “a whole thesaurus of abuse.” When Much Ado is reckoned a disturbing play, Claudio is generally the reason.
Yet many critics accept the judgment, offered within the play, that Don John is “the author of...
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SOURCE: Baker, David Weil. “‘Surpris'd with all’: Rereading Character in Much Ado about Nothing.” In Second Thoughts: A Focus on Rereading, edited by David Galef, pp. 228-45. Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1998.
[In the following essay, Baker argues that the absence of Leonato's wife Innogen in Much Ado about Nothing necessitates a reevaluation of the play's characters, especially the immediate members of Leonato's family.]
“Reade him, therefore; and againe, and againe,” enjoined Henry Condell and John Heminge, the supervisors of the publication of the First Folio, and this injunction to the “great Variety of Readers” contrasts with their depiction of a Shakespeare who never blotted a line and was thus presumably free from the need to reread his own work. Yet rereaders of Shakespeare's plays may find themselves in the position of the plotting Prospero as he watches Miranda and Ferdinand confirm their love according to a script that he has largely devised: “So glad of this as they I cannot be, / Who are surpris'd with all; but my rejoicing / At nothing can be more” (The Tempest, 3.1.93). That is, rereaders of a Shakespeare play may discover nuances and layers of meaning that delight them as nothing else, but some of the surprise is gone after their first experience of the play. Attacking what he terms the “new histrionicism,” Harry Berger describes this...
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Criticism: Production Reviews
SOURCE: Carnegy, Patrick. Review of Much Ado about Nothing. Spectator 288, no. 9067 (18 May 2002): 58.
[In the following review, Carnegy offers a positive assessment of Gregory Doran's 2002 Royal Shakespeare Company production of Much Ado about Nothing, contending that the director crafted a delicate balance between the drama's urbane comedy and sinister undertones.]
The brilliant artifice of the wit in Much Ado is a dance over an abyss, and yet it needs firm ground if its steps are not to falter. What draws us to the play is delight in its exquisitely protracted verbal fencing between Beatrice and Benedick, played in Gregory Doran's new production by Harriet Walter and Nicholas le Prevost. Their sallies can bear a wealth of interpretation but need a context that will make light of the absurdities in the plotting.
Doran and his designer Stephen Brimson Lewis go the whole way with the Sicilian thing. Leonato's sun-baked terracotta villa rises up impressively behind Messina's town square; dogs bark, the famous marionettes are put through their paces, ragazzi tear about and bands strike up.
The period is quite precisely May 1936 when Mussolini's troops returned in triumph from Ethiopia (thus injecting new meaning into Claudio's naughty joke about being prepared to marry anyone but an ‘Ethiope’). So, yes, it's once again that fascist milieu beloved...
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SOURCE: Hemming, Sarah. Review of Much Ado about Nothing. Financial Times (8 August 2002): 18.
[In the following review of the 2002 Royal Shakespeare Company production of Much Ado about Nothing directed by Gregory Doran, Hemming contends that Doran's interpretation was unable to adequately link the dark and comic aspects of Shakespeare's drama.]
Even Shakespeare's sunniest comedies have dark shadows. In Much Ado About Nothing the focus is on Beatrice and Benedick, the two sceptics whose romance is conducted through denial. But equally important is the contrasting love affair of Claudio and Hero, during which Claudio cruelly and publicly jilts Hero at the altar. What price love here? Little wonder Beatrice and Benedick are so suspicious of it. Gregory Doran's RSC production astutely aims to illuminate this context by setting the play not in 16th-century Messina, but in the Sicily of 1936—the returning soldiers have just conducted Mussolini's campaign in Ethiopia. In the world of The Godfather, the strict codes of honour and revenge make sense; in a country under Fascism, the play's concern with loyalty and betrayal hit home. It's a great idea and the production looks lovely on Stephen Brimson Lewis's evocative, sun-baked set, and yet somehow it doesn't quite convince.
While the programme notes talk about vendettas and the subservient role of women in this...
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SOURCE: Boston, Gabriella. Review of Much Ado about Nothing. Washington Times (16 November 2002): D2.
[In the following review, Boston admires the Jazz Age setting of director Mark Lamos's 2002 Shakespeare Theatre production of Much Ado about Nothing and praises Karen Ziemba's compelling performance in the role of Beatrice.]
Much Ado About Nothing at the Shakespeare Theatre is really something. It's energetic and funny, with fantastic acting and a set design that transports the audience back to F. Scott Fitzgerald land.
What better time in which to set this—one of Shakespeare's lightest comedies—than in the fun-filled Roaring '20s?
Much Ado, like many of the Bard's plays, revolves around mistaken identities, two couples in love and a mean-spirited, melancholy bad guy as well as an upstanding, refined good guy, who doubles as a matchmaker.
One couple—Beatrice, played by the radiant Karen Ziemba, and Benedick, played by funnyman Dan Snook—provide most of the comedy. They do it through body language, witty lines, dances and slapstick, eliciting plenty of chuckles and laughs from the audience.
Shortly after the curtain rises—revealing a bright green lawn, manicured bushes and long white balustrades (the makings of a '20s estate)—the two Bs tell us they have sworn off love, which in Shakespearean...
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SOURCE: Lipstein, Freddi. Review of Much Ado about Nothing. Shakespeare Bulletin 21, no. 2 (spring-summer 2003): 27-8.
[In the following review of the 2002/2003 staging of Much Ado about Nothing at the Shakespeare Theatre in Washington, D.C., Lipstein observes director Mark Lamos's reliance on low comedy to carry the play.]
In the Shakespeare Theatre's production of Much Ado About Nothing, director Mark Lamos has consciously chosen to emphasize the lighter side of the play, an approach that results in irreconcilable internal inconsistencies. Set in the 1920s, the play opens with Leonato and other characters sitting in a lush green garden, their heads turning from side to side following the sound of a tennis ball making contact with a racquet—perhaps a prelude to the back and forth wit of Beatrice and Benedick. The set is a carefully manicured lawn, reached by white marble stairways on either side and arched ivy-covered doorways in the back. Above is a walkway with a low marble balustrade. The movable trees and bushes are all neatly shaped pyramids.
As the messenger arrives to announce Don Pedro's return from the war, Beatrice and Hero enter from opposite sides of the lawn in chase of the tennis ball that has been “mishit.” The sunglasses and straw hats, lightweight suits, and Hero's and Beatrice's 1920s vintage white tennis frocks signal that it is summer....
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SOURCE: Jackson, Russell. Review of Much Ado about Nothing. Shakespeare Quarterly 54, no. 2 (summer 2003): 167-95.
[In the following excerpted review of the 2002/2003 Royal Shakespeare Company season at Stratford-upon-Avon, Jackson summarizes the major dramatic movements and principal character interpretations that made up Gregory Doran's generally well-received staging of Much Ado about Nothing.]
The first two plays in the Stratford season were cross-cast in the supporting roles but did not share the same principals: Harriet Walter (Beatrice) and Nicholas Le Prevost (Benedick) appeared only in Much Ado About Nothing, and Stuart Wilson and Sinead Cusack played only Antony and Cleopatra. Of the two productions, Doran's Much Ado was the more successful, A permanent (and very solid-looking) set showed the exterior of Leonato's villa stretching diagonally across and up the stage from the left-hand corner. The large porch, with a balcony reached by a flight of steps, dominated the center of the stage, while the downstage playing area represented the garden or a street, and the lighting on the warm sandstone evoked heat and Italian sunshine. For the garden scenes a trellis of greenery could be run across the stage in front of the house, and the chapel was represented by introducing an altar on the extreme left, a statue of the Virgin by the door, and rows of chairs to suggest the...
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SOURCE: Rozett, Martha Tuck. Review of Much Ado about Nothing. Shakespeare Bulletin 21, no. 3 (fall 2003): 131-33.
[In the following review of director Daniela Varon's 2003 Shakespeare and Company staging of Much Ado about Nothing at the Founders' Theater in Lenox, Massachusetts, Rozett praises Varon's fine realization of the play's festive qualities and comic virtuosity.]
Seldom does a Shakespeare play with a modern setting manage to evoke a particular time and place as thoroughly as Shakespeare and Company's production of Much Ado about Nothing. Daniela Varon's Messina, inspired by popular images of Sicily in the 1950s, is steeped in the culture of violence and family loyalty associated with the Mafia. The oft-repeated word “honor” becomes a keynote in this production, for as Varon says in her director's notes, she is interested in “what it is to speak and to act honorably, what it really is to be a man of honor, what honor truly means to a woman in a society that equates her honor with her chastity and that makes sexual dishonor a fate worse than death.” But Varon's Sicily is also splendidly festive, its atmosphere conveyed less by the simple set than by the veritable anthology of popular instrumental and vocal music in English and Italian that starts before the play begins and continues during the intermission and straight through to the play's end. A big old-fashioned...
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SOURCE: Traci, Philip. “‘Come, 'tis no matter. / Do not you meddle’: Too Much Ado in Shakespeare's Comedy.” Upstart Crow 4 (fall 1982): 107-12.
[In the following essay, Traci discusses the motif of meddling in the affairs of others in Much Ado about Nothing, particularly with respect to the romantic relationship between Beatrice and Benedick.]
However critics have viewed Much Ado About Nothing,1 whether as happy comedy2 or Shakespeare's most cynical study in the genre3, they have agreed that its title, despite its seeming throwaway quality, carries significance. Here, however, agreement ends. Dorothy Hockey sees a central pun in the Elizabethan pronunciation of “nothing” as “nothing”, which underscores, she points out, the noting and misnoting in the play.4 The pun is not without significance to such studies as those of Berry, Evans, and Lewalski, which focus in different ways on different levels of “knowing.”5 The differences among Claudio's eyes, even when they negotiate for themselves, the Friar's patient and compassionate observation, and Dogberry's Watch's foolish but saving discoveries are as obvious as significant.
The difference among the three are not only in the way in which they see and come to know, but also in the ways in which they react or let be. The title, I suggest, also implies...
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SOURCE: Drakakis, John. “Trust and Transgression: The Discursive Practices of Much Ado about Nothing.” In Post-Structuralist Readings of English Poetry, edited by Richard Machin and Christopher Norris, pp. 59-84. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1987.
[In the following essay, Drakakis presents an interpretation of Much Ado about Nothing informed by post-structuralist theoretical principles.]
In 1834 Coleridge announced the transformation of Shakespeare from a professional dramatist into an individual consciousness whose plays were the repositories of timeless truths. Hence his assertion that Shakespeare “is of no age—nor, may I add, of any religion, or party, or profession”.1 With very few adjustments, the myth has proved durable, with those truths resurfacing recently as the “eterne mutabilitie” of the human condition, those “perennial, unhistorical variations of temperament” which comprise the irreducible core of “human nature”.2 Coleridge had already laid the foundations for the removal of Shakespeare from history some twenty years earlier, in about 1813, in some notes for a lecture in which he formulated a theory of dramatic character which was to receive its most sophisticated expression less than a century later in A. C. Bradley's Shakespearean Tragedy (1904). The subject of those earlier remarks was,...
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SOURCE: Partee, Morriss Henry. “The Comic Equilibrium of Much Ado about Nothing.” Upstart Crow 12 (1992): 60-73.
[In the following essay, Partee probes the thematic conflicts of Much Ado about Nothing by exploring the play's structural tensions between comedy and tragedy. The critic also examines the function of the Beatrice-Benedick subplot as a device that steers the story away from its more disturbing concerns—including adultery, illegitimacy, and sexual transgression—in order to highlight the play's themes of reconciliation, joy, and matrimony.]
Finding the balance between the two plots of Much Ado About Nothing continues to challenge readers. While most critics agree that Claudio's relationship with Hero forms the underlying structure of the play, the Benedick and Beatrice material has always attracted far more interest and acclaim. This fascination with the background or subplot calls into question Shakespeare's artistry—the ponderous comedy of situation may seem unworthy to co-exist with, much less to contain, the brilliant light-hearted comedy of manners. Such a literary reading proceeds from the questionable assumption that every dramatic figure should have the full panoply of emotional depth assigned to actual people. The diversity of attributes assigned to Benedick and Beatrice naturally offers the intuitions of critics far more scope for explication than does...
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Andresen-Thom, Martha. “Thinking about Women and Their Prosperous Art: A Reply to Juliet Dusinberre's Shakespeare and the Nature of Women.” Shakespeare Studies 11 (1978): 259-76.
Presents Much Ado about Nothing's Beatrice as an example of the “female ego ideal” in Shakespearean drama.
Brooke, Stopford A. “Much Ado about Nothing.” In Ten More Plays of Shakespeare, pp. 1-30. London: Constable, 1913.
Offers a moral and impressionistic assessment of character in Much Ado about Nothing.
Cox, John F., ed. Introduction to Shakespeare in Production: Much Ado about Nothing, by William Shakespeare, pp. 1-85. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997.
Provides an introduction to Much Ado about Nothing that focuses on the performance history of the drama.
Crichton, Andrew B. “Hercules Shaven: A Centering Mythic Metaphor in Much Ado about Nothing.” Texas Studies in Literature and Language 16, no. 5 (fall 1974): 619-26.
Examines Borachio's allusion to the shaven Hercules in Act III, scene iii of Much Ado about Nothing.
Draffan, Robert A. “About Much Ado.” Essays in Criticism 20, no. 4 (October 1970): 488-92.
Reflects on the characterization of...
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