At a Glance

Don Pedro, Prince of Arragon, pauses on his journey home to visit Leonato, the Governor of Messina. With Don Pedro are his brother, Don John, and his two friends Claudio and Benedick. Claudio immediately falls in love with Hero, Leonato's virtuous daughter.

  • Don Pedro agrees to disguise himself as Claudio to woo Hero on his behalf. Don Pedro then secures approval for Claudio to marry Hero from Leonato. While preparing for the wedding, the friends trick Benedick, a confirmed bachelor, into believing that Beatrice, an equally bitter maiden, is in love with him.
  • Don John conspires to disgrace Hero. He arranges a meeting between Borachio and Margaret, Hero's maid, to make it look like Hero is cheating on Claudio. On their wedding day, Claudio shames Hero at the altar. She faints, overwhelmed, and the priest and her father fake her death to give them time to prove her innocence.
  • Constable Dogberry and his incompetent watchmen, who heard Don John plotting against Hero, at last reach Leonato and proclaim her innocence. After Hero's "funeral," Leonato asks Claudio to marry his "niece" instead. To Claudio's delight, Leonato's niece is in fact Hero wearing a mask. Claudio and Hero marry, and Don John is captured.


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 play's 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.


(Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

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 each other that poor Benedick pines and sighs for the heartless Beatrice. The two unsuspecting young people decide not to let the other suffer. Each will sacrifice principles and accept the other’s love.

Just as Benedick and Beatrice prepare to admit their love for each other, Don John is successful in his base plot to ruin Hero. He tells Claudio that he has learned of Hero’s duplicity, and he arranges to take him and Don Pedro to her window that very night to witness her unfaithfulness. Dogberry, a constable, and the watch apprehend Don John’s followers and overhear the truth of the plot, but in their stupidity the petty officials cannot get their story told in time to prevent Hero’s disgrace. Don Pedro and Claudio witness the apparent betrayal, and Claudio determines to allow Hero to arrive in church the next day still thinking herself beloved. Then, instead of marrying her, he will shame her before all the wedding guests.

All happens as Don John had hoped. Before the priest and all the guests, Claudio calls Hero a wanton and forswears her love for all time. The poor girl protests her innocence, but to no avail. Claudio says that he had seen her foul act with his own eyes. Hero swoons and lays as if dead, but Claudio and Don Pedro leave her with her father, who believes the story and wishes his daughter really dead in her shame. The priest believes the girl guiltless, however, and he persuades Leonato to believe in her, too. The priest tells Leonato to let the world believe Hero dead while they work to prove her innocent. Benedick, also believing in her innocence, promises to help unravel the mystery. Then, Beatrice tells Benedick of her love for him and asks him to kill Claudio and so prove his love for her. Benedick challenges Claudio to a duel. Don John had fled the country after the successful outcome of his plot, but Benedick swears that he will find Don John and kill him as well as Claudio.

At last, Dogberry and the watch get to Leonato and tell their story. When Claudio and Don Pedro hear the story, Claudio wants to die and to be with his wronged Hero. Leonato allows the two sorrowful men to continue to think Hero dead. In fact, they all attend her funeral. Leonato says that he will be avenged if Claudio will marry his niece, a girl who much resembles Hero. Although Claudio still loves the dead Hero, he agrees to marry the other girl so that Leonato should have his wish.

When Don Pedro and Claudio arrive at Leonato’s house for the ceremony, all the women are masked. Leonato brings one young woman forward. After Claudio promises to be her husband, she unmasks. She is, of course, Hero. At first, Claudio cannot believe his senses, but after he is convinced of the truth he takes her to the church immediately. Then, Benedick and Beatrice declare their true love for each other, and they, too, leave for the church after a dance in celebration of the double nuptials to be performed. Best of all, word comes that Don John had been captured and is being brought back to Messina to face his brother, Don Pedro, the next day. On this day, however, all is joy and happiness.