Much Ado about Nothing
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.
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 Squire Phedon, deceived by his supposed friend Philemon into thinking his adored Claribell disloyal, falls into the intemperance of killing her (The Faerie Queene, 1590, II.4.xvi-xxxviii.)
Meanwhile Matteo Bandello, the Italian ecclesiastic, diplomat, and man of letters, treated the subject in his own way in the twenty-second story of La Prima Parte de le Novelle (1554), naming his lovers Sir Timbreo and Fenicia. A French translation, morally and rhetorically elaborated, appeared as the eighteenth tale of the third volume of François de Belleforest's Histoires Tragiques (1569).
Versions in English other than those mentioned comprise, possibly, a ‘matter of Panecia’ (i.e. Fenicia?) play performed by the Earl of Leicester's Men at Court on New Year's Day 1575 but no longer extant,3 and, more evidently, an Ariodante and Genevra (also not extant), done likewise at Court, on 12 February 1583, by Merchant Taylors' schoolboys under their humanist headmaster Richard Mulcaster.4 Other analogues or sources comprise George Whetstone's story of Rinaldo and Giletta, incorporating elements of Ariosto and Bandello in The Rocke of Regard (1576: see Appendix I.ii), and two plays, one—Victoria—in Latin (c. 1580-3) by Abraham Fraunce, the other—Fedele and Fortunio, The Two Italian Gentlemen—in English (1585) by one M. A. (Anthony Munday?).5 Both are versions of a highly reputed comedy, Il Fedele, by Luigi Pasaquaglio (1579). In this, the would-be seducer Fedele, unable to win his desired Vittoria (who, though married, is enamoured of his rival, Fortunio), traduces her to her husband Cornelio and arranges that Cornelio shall see a servant (in love with her maid, like Borachio with Margaret in Much Ado) enter the house and court a supposed Vittoria. Cornelio, gulled, plans to poison his wife, but by a trick she mollifies Fedele and escapes her fate. With many variations as to its intrigues the story was widely popular, varying in tone from farce or Plautine comedy to tragedy.
ARIOSTO: ‘ORLANDO FURIOSO’, CANTO V (1516)
Ariosto, translated by Harington in 1591, tells how the brave Renaldo, ‘Of noble chivalrie the verie flowre’ (V. 82), arrives in Scotland and learns that the Scottish princess Genevra must die accused of unchastity unless a champion comes forward to defend her. Resolving to do so he makes for the court at St Andrews and on the way saves a woman from murderous assailants. She is Genevra's maid Dalinda and she tells him that the princess is innocent.
Dalinda has been in love with Polynesso, Duke of Albany, and he has often met her secretly in Genevra's room, ascending by a rope ladder; Polynesso, nevertheless, has aspired to marry Genevra herself. But she loved the noble Ariodante, and was equally loved. Polynesso's desire for Genevra turning to hatred, he plotted to destroy the lovers' hopes. Though posing as Ariodante's friend, he arranged that Dalinda (who had ‘no reason, nor no wit, / His shamefull drift (tho' open) to perceaue’; V. 26) should dress herself as her mistress and admit him by night; he then placed Ariodante and the latter's brother Lurcanio where they could see him enter Genevra's window. The deception succeeded. Horrified, Ariodante disappeared, intending to drown himself, though in fact (unknown to anyone) having jumped from a cliff he thought better of it, swam ashore, and remained incognito. Lurcanio accused Genevra of unchastity, and she has been doomed to death.
To remove the unwitting accomplice Dalinda, Polynesso then planned the murder from which Renaldo has saved her. The two travellers reach St Andrews and Renaldo prepares to fight for justice. He finds a strange knight already engaging the deluded but honourable accuser Lurcanio, and he declares that neither contender should lose his life, Genevra's unknown champion because he fights for the right, Lurcanio because he is the victim of deceit. The combat ceases. Renaldo then accuses Polynesso and in the ensuing fight he mortally wounds him. Polynesso dies confessing his guilt; the strange knight reveals himself as Ariodante and is joyfully reunited with Genevra (to protect whom, though still thinking her guilty, he has even opposed his brother); and Dalinda betakes herself to a nunnery.
The similarities to Shakespeare's plot (though they show considerable variation) amount to Polynesso's mortal jealousy (for reasons different from Don John's in the play); his love affair with the maid and the ladder ascent to the disguised girl impersonating her mistress (though the play transfers these operations to the subordinate Borachio); the maid's ignorance of her action's bearing; the court's belief (in the play only temporary) in the heroine's guilt; the defending champion's challenge to the accuser; and the happy outcome after peril.
The most obvious of the differences from Shakespeare's plot are Ariosto's courtly-romance level; his Scottish location and quite different personal names; his sense of tragic danger and murderous violence (far outgoing anything in the play); his villain's motives (foiled jealousy in love) and initiatives in the deception (instead of through an agent's instigation); his deceived lover's reported suicide and secret reappearance; his accusation urged not by the lover (as a kind of vengeance) but by the lover's brother (as an act of justice); his wholly different handling of Genevra's plight (as compared with Hero's) and of the circumstances of the challenge (in the poem the deluded compassionate Ariodante opposing his brother; in the play the deluded uncompassionate Claudio opposing the erstwhile friend Benedick) and the restoration of love; and the maid retiring to a nunnery (in the play, fully restored in social esteem). Shakespeare's particulars belong to a markedly different conception from Ariosto's.
BANDELLO: ‘LA PRIMA PARTE DE LE NOVELLE’, NOVELLA 22 (1554)
Bandello's version is much racier, and far nearer to Shakespeare's. It tells how the knightly Sir Timbreo di Cardona, one of King Piero of Aragon's courtiers, and a valiant soldier while the King is capturing Sicily, falls in love during the victory celebrations in Messina with Fenicia, daughter of Messer Lionato de' Lionati, ‘a poor gentleman and not his equal’.6 Fenicia behaves so modestly that Sir Timbreo concludes that he can win her only by marriage (not at all his original plan). Her birth, he reflects, is lower than his but she is of good lineage, and through a friendly nobleman he gains her father's consent. The lovers rejoice and all Messina likewise, Lionato being highly regarded.
A rival, however, Sir Girondo Olerio Valenziano, has also fallen in love with Fenicia. Though basically honourable, and a friend of Sir Timbreo's, he resolves to break the betrothal, and he employs an agent, ‘more pleased with evil than with good’ (II.115), to tell Sir Timbreo that if he will hide in the garden he shall see Fenicia that very night playing him false. Suffering ‘bitter (and as it seemed to him just) anger’ (II.115), and ‘blinded with the veil of jealousy’ (II.116), Sir Timbreo does so, unaccompanied. The bedroom, in a remote part of the house, is entered by Sir Girondo's servant dressed as a gentleman. Sir Timbreo's love turns to ‘cruel hate’ (II.117), but bound by a vow of silence he leaves the scene without intervening.
Through the nobleman who arranged the betrothal he informs Lionato that Fenicia's misconduct has ended the engagement. Her whole family is shocked; Lionato, attributing the charge to Sir Timbreo's scorn at their reduced circumstances, vows his belief in her innocence and his trust that God will vindicate her. Fenicia herself, swooning, then recovering for a while, delivers a long and touching defence and prays that God will enlighten Sir Timbreo. She then lies apparently dead, but while awaiting burial she revives and her family take this as a sign that truth shall prevail. She is secretly sent to the country house of Lionato's brother and renamed Lucilla. The whole city grieves, obsequies are performed, and a sonnet is carved on her ‘tomb’.
Sir Timbreo now begins to waver. He reflects that the bedroom in question is too remote to be hers, and that the intruder could hardly have been visiting her. More remarkably, Sir Girondo, struck with remorse at Fenicia's fate, offers Sir Timbreo his dagger before her tomb, confesses what his jealousy had driven him to, and begs for death.
Vengeance on him will not restore Fenicia, however, and Sir Timbreo nobly declines it. Valuing friendship before love he announces that had he known of Sir Girondo's passion he would have yielded Fenicia to him, or, he suggests, had they discussed the matter, Sir Girondo might have done likewise. They will, at any rate, publicly vindicate her, and this they do. Lionato exacts a promise that Sir Timbreo will take no other bride than one chosen for him.
Time passes. Fenicia completes her seventeenth year and blooms so beautifully as to be unrecognizable as her former self. She has, moreover, a younger sister Belfiore, almost as lovely. Lionato tells Sir Timbreo that he has a bride for him, and a gay company (including Sir Girondo) makes for the country house, attends Mass, and meets Fenicia-Lucilla and Belfiore. Though Sir Timbreo is reminded of Fenicia, in her enhanced beauty he does not recognize her. They are married, and at the wedding banquet he poignantly expresses his grief for the ‘dead’ bride, his joy in the living one, and his adoration of both; whereupon Lionato announces that the two are one. Joyful reunion ensues, Girondo begs for and receives forgiveness and the hand of Belfiore, and King Piero receives the party on its return to Messina with festivities, bestowing dowries on the brides and wealth and honour on Lionato.
This story is much nearer Shakespeare's than is Ariosto's. From it he derives the festive Messina setting, the names of Pedro and Leonato, Claudio's recent war service (different though the war's cause and course), the courtship conducted through a noble intermediary, the deceiver's disguised agent, the lover's seemingly justified public rejection of the supposedly false bride, the religious assurance buoying up the heroine's friends, her swoon, revival, self-defence, and presumed death, the obsequies and epitaph, Claudio's penitence and submission, Leonato's offering of the ‘substitute’ bride under his brother's auspices, the acceptance and marriage of the veiled and unknown lady, the revelation, and the concluding festivities under princely patronage.
The differences from Shakespeare's plot are, nevertheless, notable enough to testify to Shakespeare's selective and modifying intelligence. First, Bandello's King Piero has no part in the plot save as the victor during whose sojourn in Messina the wooing takes place, with no intervention from him, and as the patron of the eventual marriage. Shakespeare, instead, has Don Pedro presiding throughout and negotiating the betrothal. The story gains a more courtly air. Then, Bandello gives Fenicia a mother, whom Shakespeare discards, though including ‘Innogen’ as Leonato's wife in the entry directions for I.i and II.i. Since in Bandello the mother figures almost solely when the ‘dead’ girl is being prepared for burial, and Shakespeare makes no use of this scene, her part doubtless just naturally lapsed. Then again, Sir Timbreo is a sensual youth prepared to seduce Fenicia and turning to marriage only when seduction proves impossible: Claudio, quite on the contrary, rejects Leonato's surmise that he may have ‘made defeat of [Hero's] virginity’ and vows, convincingly, that he has shown nothing but ‘Bashful sincerity and comely love’ (IV.i.47, 54). Throughout he is a shy wooer, whose willingness to have Don Pedro negotiate for him seems due as much to social diffidence (so different from his military courage) as to the expected diplomacies of well-bred courtship.
Then again, jealous though Sir Timbreo is on thinking himself deceived, he shows no sign of the jumpiness that the callow Claudio evinces when Don John, almost as his first action, tricks him into thinking that Don Pedro has wooed for himself. True, Claudio is not too blameworthy in this, for Leonato's circle—Leonato, Antonio, even Beatrice and Benedick—all think the same; this Act II minor gulling portends the Act III major one, where Claudio's credulity is again endorsed by the similar error of the experienced Don Pedro. Wanting to give plausibility to the later crisis, Shakespeare differs from Bandello in making Claudio's temperamental instability a strand in the web of deceptions and misunderstandings integral to the play's fabric.
The motives for deception, next, are much changed from Bandello's. Rivalry over Hero, though credible were the events real, would in the world of the play be unfitting to so gentle and sheltered a heroine, so no element of rival love enters: Hero is to be virginal even to the extent of having no other wooer. From the rumbles of the concluded war Shakespeare picks up a different motive for Don John's envy—military jealousy and rancour—and saves Hero from any taint of competition; Don John's animus is against the ‘young start-up’ whose glory it is to have overthrown him (I.iii.62-3) and against the princely brother who has forgiven his rebellion.
The deceiver, moreover, is not Bandello's brave (though temporarily erring) knight who has loyally fought in King Piero's war but a rebel against his lord and brother; he has the wicked nature of Ariosto's Polynesso embodied in the saturnine, melancholic, minor Machiavel readily recognizable as the source of malice, and dramatically popular on the Elizabethan stage. He is, moreover, a bastard, in conventional corroboration of this evil humour, though on the stage the fact, set down in an entry direction (I.i.87), is not mentioned until Benedick reveals it after the church scandal (IV.i.188).7 For Bandello's ‘friend’, treacherous only through love rivalry, Shakespeare substitutes a melodramatic rebel/foxy schemer, polarizes the two sides, sharpens the dramatic effect, and avoids the love-versus-friendship situation which had worked so dubiously in The Two Gentlemen of Verona and which in Bandello produces a Sir Timbreo and Sir Girondo each ready to hand over Fenicia regardless of her choice. Shakespeare rejects also the unlikely situation in Bandello when Sir Girondo, penitent after his appalling conduct, is again received into Lionato's family and shares in the wedding celebrations.
Among other main differences from Bandello are the equalizing of rank between Claudio and Hero, whose father is Governor of Messina, gracious and generous host of Don Pedro, not merely the head of a reduced though ancient family. This results in social cordiality all round among friends and eliminates any intrusive considerations of status. Of more importance are the different ways in which the accusation and its sequel are managed. In Bandello, Sir Timbreo alone sees the ladder trick. He then engages a friend to break off the betrothal before ever the wedding ceremony is reached. He wholly fails to convince Fenicia's family that she is guilty, and soon he begins to suspect his own judgement. Claudio on the other hand has fellow witnesses, in one of whom he has every confidence, and what they think they see is corroborated by Borachio. Then, though earlier he has had Don Pedro woo for him, Claudio himself takes up in church the role of accuser and performs it with highly dramatic effect; the impact is much stronger than with Bandello's breach negotiated by proxy, effected in Leonato's own household. So clear does the evidence seem, and so authoritative are the witnesses, that Leonato is convinced, and even Benedick is ‘attir'd in wonder’ (IV.i.144) until Beatrice makes his mind up for him. And Claudio, far from coming to suspect his own judgement, has to behave with egregious tactlessness, to be challenged by Benedick (analogously to the situation in Ariosto, though this one is differently handled), and have his error dispelled by Dogberry.
Neither Bandello nor Shakespeare intends the tragic shock to be unbearable; both provide assurance of relief. But this happens in quite different ways. Bandello has Lionato's family confident that God will reveal the truth; Shakespeare has Dogberry's Watch discover it beforehand, and the Friar give spiritual comfort in church. The passions of Claudio and Leonato stretch the nerves in one direction: knowledge that enlightenment will soon dawn relieves them in the other (though Benedick's challenge to Claudio, instigated by the marvellously welcome indignation of Beatrice, maintains the potential of tension). Finally, Dogberry's bumblings produce an enormously enjoyable sense of relaxation.
As for Claudio's conduct, from accusation to clarification, it is far more disturbing than Sir Timbreo's. Whatever...
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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...
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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...
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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...
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