William Shakespeare’s reputation as a dramatist is distinct. While few facts of his personal life are available, he was a prolific writer. During his lifetime (1564–1616), Shakespeare wrote dozens of tragedies, comedies, and historical plays, as well as sonnets and poetry. While his poetry was published before his plays were, it was his plays that met with great commercial success and critical acclaim, making him the favorite of two separate monarchs, Elizabeth I and James I. It was King James who gave Shakespeare the Globe Theatre, where his plays are still performed today.
The central plot in Much Ado About Nothing concerns the love between Hero and Claudio, with the relationship between Beatrice and Benedick forming a subplot. The two storylines are unified through the character of Leonato, Hero’s father and Beatrice’s uncle. The action of the play centers on the wedding to take place between Hero and Claudio and the attempt to get Beatrice and Benedick to admit that they love each other. Villainous Don John, however, wants to disrupt everyone’s happiness; he makes it appear that Hero is disloyal to Claudio, deliberately deceiving him and others, which divides allegiances and prompts Claudio to leave Hero at the altar. By the end of the play, however, Hero is redeemed, there is a double marriage, and all ends well.
Shakespeare often borrowed stories from other writers. Much Ado About Nothing was influenced by a collection of tales entitled La Prima Parte de le Nouelle (1554) written by the Italian writer Matteo Bandello. The twenty-second story in the collection gave Shakespeare the setting in Messina and contributed to the wedding plot involving Hero, Claudio, and Don John. The poem Orlando Furioso (1532) by Ludovico Aristo gave Shakespeare the idea for Don John’s trick to prevent the marriage. The title for the play is a pun borrowed from the time in which Shakespeare wrote. During the Elizabethan era, “nothing” was pronounced as “noting.” The pun in the title and its use throughout the play is intended to indicate the importance of “noting”—through observation, eavesdropping, and spying on the action. When a character in the play “notes” something and interprets it in the wrong way, the misunderstanding complicates the plot. When the misinterpretation is deliberate, the theme of deception emerges.
Much Ado About Nothing is a comedy, but it develops some serious themes, as well. Besides the theme of deception, the play addresses honor vs. shame, love, gender expectations, and personal transformation. The crisis at the center of the play evokes anger, betrayal, and grief. Despite these thoughtful themes and motifs, however, the circumstances and events of the play are superficial and humorous. A romantic comedy, Much Ado About Nothing continues to captivate readers and audiences four hundred years after it was written because it is so amusing.
At the heart of the comedy are two duos that are humorous in different ways: one duo is sophisticatedly funny, whereas the other is farcical. Beatrice and Benedick employ droll wit and verbal sparring, whereas Dogberry and Verges struggle humorously just to articulate their thoughts. Language contributes to the fun, too, because the wordplay highlights the various characters and their relationships to one another. Throughout the play, Shakespeare uses puns, antitheses, malapropisms, double entendres, and innuendos in a remarkable display of literary prowess.
Students should not be intimidated, however, by Shakespeare’s literary skills, as Much Ado About Nothing is not an overly daunting exercise for the intellect. The play is written primarily in prose and blank verse (unrhymed iambic pentameter), making the language easier to understand than rhymed verse. And, the plot is a relatively simple rendition of the classic boy-meets-girl story, intended to entertain, rather than to vex, its readers.
By the end of the unit the student will be able to:
1. Identify characters and describe the plot and subplot of Much Ado About Nothing.
2. Describe the central conflict.
3. Identify the primary themes and motifs.
4. Identify the various representations of love presented in the text and explain how they contribute to character and to plot development.
5. Define and explain the role of women and their sense of honor as it relates to men and to society as presented in the play.
6. Recognize literary devices, such as dramatic irony, foreshadowing, suspension of disbelief, metaphor, and puns.
7. Identify examples of blank verse and prose. Discuss the differences between prose and blank verse and their utilization as a means to reinforce character, meaning, or tone.
8. Explain how Shakespeare addresses the possibility for social redemption and rebirth.
9. Understand both an individual’s and a society’s different modes of deception.
10. Understand what elements make Much Ado About Nothing one of Shakespeare’s most popular plays.