Illustration of Hero wearing a mask

Much Ado About Nothing

by William Shakespeare

Start Free Trial


Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Children of the Mind: Miscarried Narratives in Much
Ado about Nothing

Stephen B. Dobranski, Georgia State University

An idea for a short story about people in Manhattan who are constantly creating these real unnecessary neurotic problems for themselves 'cause it keeps them from dealing with more unsolvable, terrifying problems about the universe.

—Woody Allen, Manhattan

When Beatrice first speaks in Much Ado about Nothing, she inquires after Benedick: "I pray you, is Signior Mountanto returned from the wars or no?" (I.i.28-9).1 That her first concern is Benedick's welfare suggests an interest in him beyond their ongoing "skirmish of wit" (I.i.58). Like Benedick's assertion that Beatrice exceeds Hero "as much in beauty as the first of May doth the last of December" (Li. 178-9), her question looks ahead to their open acknowledgment of love and concluding nuptials. That Beatrice refers to Benedick as "Signior Mountanto" (I.i.28)—literally, "Lord Upward Thrust"—also implies, through a bawdy innuendo, the erotic nature of their "merry war" (I.i.56).

We thus meet Beatrice and Benedick in medias res, the two having already developed an antagonistic attraction: "I know you of old," Beatrice cryptically apostrophizes (Li. 133-4). As they quarrel, compete, and court, their veiled allusions to the past do more than provide a context for their war of words. Suggesting images of sex, birthing, and loss, Beatrice's language—particularly in II.i—evokes possible causes for their mutual animosity and hints at ominous events from their past that lend depth to the play's comic tone. I want to posit a history for Beatrice and Benedick, a history to which the text alludes but always deflects. I further wish to suggest, in the second part of my reading, that such deflection is itself the subject of comedy: at the core of the play lies a haunting sense of loss that the characters, especially Beatrice, communicate obliquely.

This technique of alluding to an undeveloped, possible history represents a neglected strategy of Shakespeare's dramaturgy: he convinces us of the worlds that he creates by intimating suggestive details of his characters' past experience. I am not concerned whether Benedick and Beatrice actually lived the history that the text implies; rather, I think it important that Shakespeare contextualizes the fiction that he dramatizes by evoking another fiction that he does not.


Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Hinting at events that precede the play, the multiple allusions to Hercules in Much Ado about Nothing color Benedick's conversion from soldier to lover as his relationship with Beatrice progresses. To understand how these images may have been intended to influence our perception of his character, we need first to recall that Hercules was born when Zeus tricked the virgin Alcmene into sleeping with him.2 Enraged by another of her husband's infidelities, Hera tried to prevent Hercules' delivery by having the goddess of childbirth sit outside Alcmene's room with her legs and fingers crossed; when that plan failed, Hera attempted to murder the child by sending two serpents to strangle him in his crib.

The theme of infanticide recurs in the story of Hercules: struck by Hera with a fit of madness, Hercules murdered his own children, two of his nephew's children, and in some versions of the myth, his wife. He performed his twelve labors as punishment from the Pythia, the prophetess of Apollo at Delphi. To absolve himself, she stipulated that he must visit King Eurystheus and do whatever tasks the ruler demanded.

Hercules' reputation as a child killer later prevented his marriage to Iole, the daughter of another king, Eurytus. Eurytus had put up Iole as the reward in an archery contest, but after Hercules defeated the king and his sons, Eurytus reneged on his offer because of Hercules' past crimes. Hercules vowed revenge, and when Iphitus, the eldest son of Eurytus, requested Hercules' aid in searching for the king's missing horses, Hercules killed again. He flung Eurytus' son off the walls of Tiryns. As punishment, the gods inflicted Hercules with a disease, and so a second time he sought the Pythia's advice. She told Hercules that he could cure his malady and receive absolution if he were sold as a slave to Omphale, Queen of Lydia. According to some Roman authors, Hercules had to dress in women's clothes while in Omphale's service and tend to domestic chores, such as providing music and spinning yarn.

In Much Ado about Nothing, Benedick allies himself with Hercules by comparing Beatrice to Omphale. She is so unreasonable, he quips, that "She would have made Hercules have turned the spit, yea, and have cleft his club to make the fire too" (II.i.236-8). Initially he suggests a series of Herculean labors to escape Beatrice: when she enters with Claudio after the dance, Benedick frantically beseeches Don Pedro to send him away; he will do even the most absurd task—"the slightest errand" (II.i.248)—to avoid her company. Benedick's exaggerated request for permission, even when playfully performed, not only calls attention to Beatrice's independence in her ensuing rejection of Don Pedro, but also casts Benedick as a burlesque version of the Greek hero. He rattles off a list of pointless, Herculean labors: "1 will fetch you a tooth-picker now from the furthest inch of Asia," he offers, or "bring you the length of Prester John's foot" (II.i.250-2). Thus, as Beatrice enters, Benedick suggests that he would prefer this kind of futile activity so as to escape the consequences of his earlier gibes—or, in terms of the play's title, he introduces the idea of a great deal of work for nothing.

By the end of the play, however, Benedick offers to perform such labors on Beatrice's behalf. When Claudio slanders Hero at their wedding, Beatrice laments the decline of manhood by caustically observing, "He is now as valiant as Hercules that only tells a lie and swears it" (IV.i.320-1). Motivated in part by his own belief that Claudio has wronged Hero, Benedick accepts Beatrice's challenge, agreeing to "Kill Claudio" and thus defend Hero's honor (IV.i.288). He has moved from his own parody of a militant Hercules, eager to fetch Don Pedro "a hair off the great Cham's beard" (II.i.252), to a love-struck version of the over-achieving hero. For Beatrice, he will do anything; he pledges to "live in thy heart, die in thy lap, and be buried in thy eyes" (V.ii.94-5).3

Although we cannot know what previously occurred between Beatrice and Benedick, the play's allusions to Hercules suggest the need for atonement: just as Hercules depends on the Pythia and must serve Omphale, Benedick eventually places himself in a woman's control to find forgiveness for his own past crime.4 Hinting at the nature of this crime, Beatrice explains that Benedick, like Hercules challenging King Eurytus, had attempted to rival "Cupid at the flight; and my uncle's fool, reading the challenge, subscribed for Cupid, and challenged him at the bird-bolt" (I.i.36-8). Although we do not know for certain the identity of her "uncle's fool," Beatrice calls her own heart "poor fool" (II.i.295); and as Benedick's verbal adversary, she seems the likeliest candidate to have encountered him on Cupid's behalf. In addition to its association with the god of love, the phallic shape of a "bird-bolt," a blunt arrow, implies a sexual challenge.5

The "flight" to which Benedick challenged Cupid during his previous visit presumably refers to the flight of an arrow, but "flight" also can denote an act of fleeing or an extraordinary display of something, such as fancy, or in the case of Cupid, love. Thus, in this one speech, Beatrice subtly justifies her hostility toward Benedick: she compresses into a whimsical narrative hints that he seduced and abandoned her, using one word, "flight," to connote both. Beatrice conjures the image of Benedick striding into town, advertising his interest in love ("He set up his bills here," I.i.35)—but taking "flight" at the first sign of her challenge. As Carol Cook notes, when the play opens Beatrice "already seems to be nursing wounds from some abortive romance with Benedick."6 I will argue that the play is more suggestive than Cook describes, and that Cook's own diction—"nursing" and "abortive"—unconsciously echoes the text's allusions to Beatrice and Benedick's previous romance.


Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

We get perhaps our best glimpse of Benedick and Beatrice's pre-history during Beatrice's conversation with Don Pedro. She explains that she puts Benedick down "[s]o I would not he should do me, . . . lest I should prove the mother of fools" (II.i.267-8). Just as she earlier alluded to Benedick's visit as a sexual encounter—a challenge "at the bird-bolt" (I.i.38)—the verbs "do" and "put down" also suggest a sexual conquest; her concern with becoming a "mother of fools" points to a real, potential outcome of letting down her guard. More subtly, the lack of punctuation in her remark signals a complexity that Beatrice's humor masks. Without a comma, the dependent and independent clauses collide: the sentence "So I would not he should do me" suggests, on the one hand, "If I did not insult him, he would put me down" and, on the other, "I insult him, so that he should not put me down."7 Although both versions convey the same general meaning, the possibility that "not" can attach itself to the "I" clause or the "he" clause subtly obscures responsibility for putting down the other person. The negation of "not" acts as a hinge between Beatrice and Benedick, knotting them together while, as a negation, keeping them apart.

The full implications of this "not" / "knot" become clearer as Beatrice discusses "the heart of Signior Benedick": she says that Benedick "lent it me awhile, and I gave him use for it" (II.i.259-62). The word "use" can mean interest (as in usury), but it also denotes employment or maintenance for sexual purposes (as when "using someone" means having sex). Beatrice seems to say that Benedick temporarily loved her, and she responded to his advances.

We need to doubt, of course, that Beatrice and Benedick once had a sexual relationship, but her diction momentarily teases us into questioning what previously transpired. As Sandra Cavallo and Simona Cerutti note, a man's promise to marry a woman in early modern Europe—especially if he were a man of honor—was often enough to initiate a sexual relationship: "a woman pledged her sexuality, obtaining from the man, through his promise of marriage, the guarantee of a new condition that assured her a permanent state of honor."8 The deception to which women were susceptible in this exchange "was so frequent and endemic" that it acquired a specific vocabulary in Italian: "dare la burla (to give the trick); gettare la burla (to throw the trick); or burlare (to trick or deceive in the sense of making a fool of)."9 A man had the power, in other words, to rescind a promise of marriage simply by turning it into a "trick" and thus mocking the woman and those with her who had foolishly believed him.

Balthasar alludes to this practice of false wooing when he sings about the "fraud of men" who "were deceivers ever" (II.iii.63, 72) and advises women to "sigh not so, but let them go, / And be you blithe and bonny" (II.iii.66-7). Such tricks also occur frequently in Shakespeare's other comedies. Bertram in All's Well that Ends Well breaks his promises to both Helena and Diana: he flees from Helena before consummating their marriage and abandons Diana after (apparently) seducing her. Similarly, in Measure for Measure, Claudio impregnates Juliet before their marriage, Lucio breaks his promise to marry Kate Keepdown after she becomes pregnant, and Angelo gives Mariana the trick "in chief / For that her reputation was disvalu'd" (V.i.219-20).

When Beatrice complains to Benedick that "You always end with a jade's trick, I know you of old" (I.i. 133-4), she suggests a scenario in which Benedick "gave the trick" to negate a promise of marriage. Although Much Ado about Nothing could not support an explicit reference to this kind of deception, the hint of such duplicitous behavior, common as it was, is sufficient to darken briefly the comedy's light-hearted tone. Beatrice's words "always" and "of old" suggest that Benedick characteristically retreated when he felt threatened by her, as he does during the dance when she approaches with Claudio and as he does during their badinage after volleying a last insult.

Again and again, Beatrice conflates her feelings for Benedick with sex and pregnancy. Explaining to Don Pedro that she once gave Benedick "a double heart for his single one" (II.i.261-2), she conjures a metaphor of considerable intimacy. By "double heart" she may be referring to the union of her heart with Benedick's, or to the compounded interest that she earned on his borrowed affection. The metaphor carries the added implication that in return for Benedick's "single" heart, she could have given him two, hers and a child's. The "not" that ties her and Benedick together would then signify a miscarriage or abortion—that is, an absent child who remains unspoken, but nevertheless haunts her conversation about Benedick and marriage. The play's frequent references to Hercules, who murdered his children, his nephew's children, and King Eurytus's son, subliminally evoke, at least, the idea of lost children and the need for forgiveness. Although the predominant tone of the play cannot support more than this furtive suggestion, that suggestion is enough.

Even the title of Much Ado about Nothing subtly suggests as part of the play's metaphoric structure the idea of a lost child. In the seventeenth century, "nothing" could signify a nobody as well as something or someone destroyed or non-existent; according to the editors of the OED, Shakespeare established the first usage of several meanings of this word.10 We also ought to recall that Shakespeare would have likely been thinking about a dead child while composing the play, for he wrote it around the middle or later part of 1598, soon after losing Hamnet, his only son.11 The term "ado" in the title not only meant action or fuss, but also signified labor or work forced upon a person, as in Hercules' labors or the labor of childbirth; the editors of the OED identify its usage as "labour, trouble, difficulty" as early as 1485.12 Thus the phrase "much ado about nothing" includes among its various implications the tragedy of miscarriage or the death of an infant, for which a woman suffered much without producing a living child.13

In Beatrice's conversation with Don Pedro, her thoughts turn naturally from Benedick to childbirth. When Don Pedro presumes she must have been "born in a merry hour" because she is so "pleasant-spirited," she takes him literally, responding with uncommon candor about the pain of birthing: "No, sure, my lord, my mother cried" (II.i.314, 320, 315).14 That Beatrice, too, has experienced such pain remains—and, to preserve the play's comic atmosphere, must remain—virtually impossible. Yet, she obscures the outcome of her and Benedick's previous romance:

Don Pedro. Come, lady, come, you have lost the heart of Signior Benedick.

Beatrice. Indeed, my lord, he lent it me awhile, and I gave him use for it, a double heart for his single one. Marry, once before he won it of me with false dice, therefore your Grace may well say I have lost it.


Although "it" signifies Benedick's heart in the first two phrases—"he lent it me" and "I gave him use for it" (II.i.261-2)—its subsequent meaning is less clear. Logically, "he won it of me" ought to refer to Beatrice's heart, which Benedick claimed under false pretenses (i.e., "false dice"). But grammatically we expect the antecedent to remain consistent and "it" to signify still Benedick's heart. Substituting "Benedick's heart" for "it," however, makes little sense: once before he won his own heart from her? Beatrice may, of course, mean that Benedick had won his heart back from her, but the passage's ambiguity at least temporarily reunites Beatrice's and Benedick's hearts: her explanation grammatically recreates the "double heart" that she describes.

Like the half-disclosed events that precede the play, Beatrice's antecedents are teasingly unclear; that the "it" signifying Benedick's heart becomes unstable insinuates that he was unfaithful to her. In the final phrase "1 have lost it," Beatrice may mean that she has lost her heart to Benedick or that she lost Benedick's heart. The ambiguity in the previous usage of "it" now allows a flood of possibilities to rush in. We can no longer say with certainty what Beatrice has lost from her past relationship with Benedick—his heart? her heart? her virginity? a child? Perhaps "it" means that she has lost the game of courting, the metaphor she introduces in the phrase "he won . . . with false dice."

Beatrice's claim that "I am sunburnt" (II.i.300) suggests still another kind of loss. By sunburnt, she observes that, unlike the "fair Hero" (II.i.280-1), she is dark-complexioned and, therefore, not attractive enough to marry, according to Renaissance notions of beauty. "Burnt" in early modern England, however, also meant parched or dried up, as from a sexually transmitted disease.15 Beatrice specifically complains that she is "sick" when she learns that Benedick loves her. Margaret's punning prescription, "distilled Carduus benedictus" (III.iv.68), refers to a general cure-all used during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries that had a special application for women.16 The herbalist William Langham claimed that Carduus benedictus "helpeth the matrix" and "provoketh . . . the termes," and in his guidebook for midwives, Jacob Rueff notes the tradition that "If a woman take the juyce of Carduus, and shall cast it up againe being taken, it is supposed to be a certaine signe of conception."17 Beatrice's complaint that "I am stuffed" (III.iv.59) thus warrants Margaret's remedy; like Benedick's sexually suggestive name, her diction has a sexual innuendo. Triggering a series of other bawdy puns—"prick'st," "thistle" (III.iv.71)—the word "stuffed" and the reference to Carduus benedictus together evoke sex and pregnancy, which, although not literally true, reveal how Beatrice thinks about a relationship with Benedick.

Throughout the play, Beatrice uses metaphors of disease to refer to Benedick. If she suffers, he is to blame, for she has caught "the Benedick," a sickness that, she jokes, costs a thousand pounds to cure (I.i.81). Scorning his new friendship with Claudio, Beatrice playfully warns that Benedick "will hang upon him like a disease" and that Benedick "is sooner caught than the pestilence, and the taker runs presently mad" (I.i.78-80). Even at the wedding, Beatrice finally relents only because, she tells Benedick, "I was told you were in a consumption" (V.iv.96). Though couched in these humorous remarks, Beatrice's association of Benedick with disease suggests that their previous relationship has caused her considerable injury. The final allusion also recalls Hercules' relationship to Queen Omphale: just as the diseased Hercules obtains absolution by serving as Omphale's effeminized slave, Benedick, too, may be seeking forgiveness when he submits to Beatrice's charge.

Benedick is the one character who seems to recognize Beatrice's unhappiness perhaps because, the play suggests, he knows its cause. Whereas Don Pedro especially misunderstands Beatrice—he ignores her repeated attempts to change the subject to her cousin18 and overlooks her insulting reference to his bastard brother, "Hath your Grace ne'er a brother like you?" (II.i.304)—Benedick intimates that he and Beatrice know a great deal about each other.19 Referring to Beatrice's "base (though bitter) disposition" (ILL 193), for example, Benedick may be alluding to her hurt feelings from their previous encounter.20 Rather than implying a causal relationship between the two words—i.e., that Beatrice is bitter because of her poor quality—Benedick positions them as two contradictory facts, "base (though bitter)," as if the latter somehow restricted or qualified the former. The adversative phrase "though bitter" thus suggests that he sympathizes with Beatrice; while belittling her, he parenthetically acknowledges what no one else in the play realizes: she is nevertheless full of affliction.21

Similarly, as Benedick attempts to write Beatrice a poem, his poor rhymes create provocative word associations. Benedick keeps stumbling on "very ominous endings": he "can find out no rhyme to 'lady' but 'baby,'" and all he can think of for "scorn," is the "hard rhyme" of the cuckold's "horn" (V.ii.35-9). His frustration not only implies the limits of conventional poetry, but also hints at the circumstances of some half-disclosed, failed affair.22 Just as Beatrice conflates her feelings for Benedick with sex, pregnancy, and disease, he thinks about their relationship in these "ominous" terms; when he tries to articulate his love, his mind immediately turns to images of a child, rejection, and unfaithfulness.

The couple's final rapprochement within a comic framework requires, however, that such grim events remain ambiguous. Any attempt to argue that Beatrice and Benedick had a child or that they once had a sexual relationship would be to push into literalism the characters' wordplay and metaphors—or, again in terms of the play's title, to make too much ado about nothing. On the contrary, Shakespeare teases us: the characters of Beatrice and Benedick, as predominantly drawn, could not have experienced the darker, more realistic history that their language implies. Beatrice affirms, after all, that she is still a virgin when she imagines the devil addressing her, "Get you to heaven, Beatrice, get you to heaven, here's no place for you maids" (II.i.41-2). But when Beatrice envisions her death, she first goes, not to heaven, but to the gates of hell: "and there will the Devil meet me like an old cuckold with horns on his head" (II.i.39-40). With the placement of "like an old cuckold," she could be describing the devil or comparing herself to a man whose wife has committed adultery. Once again, her language encourages us to question momentarily her sexual experience. When Beatrice says that she will "lead his apes into hell" (II.i.37), she refers, on the one hand, to the peculiar proverb that virgins escort apes in the underworld. On the other hand, at least one version of this proverb, the ballad "The Maid and the Palmer," describes a maid who must "lead an ape in hell" as part of her penance for having buried her illegitimate children.23


Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

This strategy of evoking a fragmentary, undeveloped history, which enriches the relationship between Beatrice and Benedick, arises repeatedly in Much Ado about Nothing. Dogberry elliptically refers to the losses he has endured (IV.ii.82), Leonato's wife, Innogen, appears in only two scene headings (I.i and II.i), and Beatrice's parents remain absent and undiscussed. Leonato inquires after Antonio's son (I.ii.l) and claims that Claudio "hath an uncle here in Messina" (I.i.17), but neither character is incorporated into the play. We do not know against whom Don Pedro, Claudio, and Benedick have been fighting in their recent battle, nor can we explain with certainty whether Don John is their prisoner or a disgruntled ally. More information about Margaret's former relationship with Borachio might help us comprehend how she would agree to dress in Hero's clothes, stand in Hero's window, be addressed as Hero, and bid Borachio as Claudio "a thousand times good night" (III.iii.142-3).24 In an attempt to account for such inconsistencies, John Dover Wilson and Arthur Quiller-Couch have argued that the ambiguities in the text represent vestiges of an older play that Shakespeare was hurriedly revising. According to Wilson and Quiller-Couch, Shakespeare reworked the play into its surviving state by emphasizing the plot of Beatrice and Benedick, but retaining as much of the older version as possible.25

Regardless of its origin—Shakespeare's artistry or the traces of an unknown source-text—this technique of partial information characterizes Shakespeare's dramaturgy: the details of the characters' pasts hover on the periphery of the plays, spied from the corner of our eyes, but frustrating any attempt to specify what has previously transpired. We cannot pinpoint, for example, whether the ghost lies to Hamlet about Claudius's adultery; we are not even told why the crown passed to Claudius, and can only speculate about the exact nature of Hamlet's relationship to Ophelia before his father's death. In King Lear, the absent mother receives scant attention; in Othello, Iago inexplicably refers to Cassio's "fair wife";26 and in The Winter's Tale, the events of Polixenes' nine-month visit to Sicily remain ambiguous as do the pressing matters that he cites when he tries to depart. In Romeo and Juliet, the Montagues and Capulets are feuding—but why?

Such shadowy narrative contexts draw us into the dramas by tantalizing us with what has already occurred. We believe that the characters have a past because they do not enter with neat, packaged explanations of their previous experiences; the plays seem more realistic because the characters' lives exceed the boundaries of the stage. As Norman Rabkin argues, Shakespeare's artistic achievement lies in his ability "to create illusory worlds which, like the world we feel about us, make sense in ways that consistently elude our power to articulate them rationally."27 According to Rabkin, we must understand the worlds of the plays intuitively because they "cannot be reduced to sense."28 Writing on the Henry IV plays, John Rumrich also emphasizes this kind of "organic messiness" inherent in the "evocative idiom of the dramas"; he suggests that Shakespeare's play-making depends on its "life-like mingling of significance and irresolvability," which often defies the restrictive categories imposed by a critical analysis.29

More specifically, the genteel world of Shakespeare's comedy cannot accommodate the volatile passions to which the characters allude. No one in Messina, for example, is able to confront the emotional events that precede the play: except for the messenger's terse account of Don Pedro's victory, we learn little about the recent battle, and the characters can only refer to painful memories covertly. Describing what she calls Messina's "sophisticated, graceful, almost choreographic social forms," Carol Cook notes that its inhabitants often rely on humor to communicate their aggression; the "tight rein kept on emotions" makes "them difficult or dangerous to express."30

Such dangerous emotions receive a fuller and more open treatment in Shakespeare's later comedies. If we doubt that he would have crafted such a cruel history for Beatrice and Benedick, we should recall that Shakespeare often built his comedies around tragic or potentially tragic circumstances. In Troilus and Cressida, Pandarus encourages his niece to become Troilus's mistress. In All's Well that Ends Well, Bertram callously rejects Helena, cruelly tortures his follower Parolles—and shows scant signs of repentance at the play's end. The third of the "problem comedies," Measure for Measure, focuses on prostitution, capital punishment, and premarital intercourse.31 Claudio tries to escape execution by persuading his sister Isabella to gratify Angelo sexually, and Angelo covers up his sexual exploits by ordering Claudio's death.

Although in Much Ado about Nothing Messina, like Beatrice, appears "pleasant-spirited" (II.i.320), it too harbors these darker sentiments. When Claudio, Leonato, and Beatrice successively release their pent-up hostility at the wedding, we momentarily witness the intense emotions that have been percolating beneath Messina's decorum.32 These feelings remain for the most part offstage, however, or lurk in the play's humor and imagery. Just as we do not know what has previously transpired, we must infer what will happen after the final act. Benedick tells Don Pedro not to think about the captured Don John "till tomorrow; I'll devise thee brave punishments for him" (V.iv. 125-6). He then immediately exclaims, "Strike up, pipers!" which is followed by the single stage-direction, "Dance" (V.iv. 126). Such celebrating suggests a cathartic release, but it also represents an artful dodge: the inhabitants of Messina, in particular Benedick, make "much ado" so as to escape serious consequences. Benedick's promise displaces the torture of Don John, as if Messina could not tolerate such violence; the play cannot linger over his treachery for it to sustain its comic tone. Don John flees after Hero allegedly dies, Hero copes with her public humiliation by hiding, and Don Pedro assuages the pain of Beatrice's rejection by distracting himself with his elaborate match-making. Again and again, the characters turn away from difficult situations; they even brush aside Margaret's complicity, rationalizing that she helped Borachio "against her will" (V.iv.5).33

Benedick most consistently embodies the play's strategy of fleeing from serious consequences. He wears a mask to speak with Beatrice, for example, and cowers in the arbor to avoid Don Pedro and Claudio. He takes flight whenever he feels threatened—at the dance, during his conversation with Beatrice, and during his past visit to Messina. That Benedick should speak the final line is thus fitting: the play leaves us with the threat of violence—Don John's "brave punishments"—but just as the comedy persistently averts its attention from a sense of loss, these punishments remain deflected, put off indefinitely until a "tomorrow" that will never come.

In like manner, Beatrice and Benedick's past is there and not there, alluded to but absent. Rather than depict (or even fully explain) the couple's previous, failed relationship, Shakespeare constructs a parallel narrative with less emotionally complex lovers, Hero and Claudio, whose losses are visible and potentially more devastating than what Beatrice and Benedick have endured. Presumably, because this pair of lovers quickly recovers, so can Beatrice and Benedick. The plot of Hero and Claudio thus represents the present displacement of Beatrice and Benedick's earlier romance; like the jokes that the characters use to sublimate their passions, the story of Hero and Claudio furtively suggests the pain of Benedick and Beatrice. Within Hero's plot, a loss of virginity results in a child's death, and Claudio, like Hercules, must perform a series of prescribed tasks to achieve absolution: he must clear Hero's name, "Hang her an epitaph upon her tomb, / And sing it to her bones," and then marry Leonato's fictitious niece (V.i.278-9). This plot does not entirely correspond to Beatrice and Benedick's; it refracts and compresses parts of the narrative I have been suggesting.34 Hero supposedly loses her virginity, for example, the "child" that dies is Leonato's, and, of course, Leonato only pretends that Hero dies. But these discrepancies render Beatrice's possible loss all the more poignant, for the play implies that she may have truly suffered what Leonato feigns and, unlike the fair Hero, she may have truly lost her virginity.

The irony lies in the play's title, "much ado about nothing." It refers to the characters' strategy for denying serious consequences by occupying themselves with futile activity, and, as we have seen, it specifically describes Beatrice's suffering—she endured much ado and she has come away with nothing. The title applies to the relationship between Claudio and Hero because he creates a great deal of fuss over nothing: in fact, Hero has not lost her virginity and she only pretends to die.35 "Nothing" also means the absence of a "thing," and "thing" in the Renaissance euphemistically signified a penis; this sense applies to the play in that Claudio makes a fuss about Hero's sexual organ. But Beatrice, too, has experienced a great deal of labor/ado because of her "no thing"—because of her womanhood and perhaps because of a lost child. Her emotional response to Hero's ostracism at the wedding becomes even more touching when we acknowledge that Beatrice may empathize with Hero. Beatrice, too, has suffered.

Throughout the play, we encounter metaphoric shades and echoes of "nothing," such as Hero's virtual silence in the opening scene, the watch's orders to do essentially nothing (III.iii.25-80), and Don John's inability to devise any mischief without Borachio's prompting. In addition to its many instances of deflection, Much Ado about Nothing depends on trickery and lying (Don John's machinations, Claudio's false accusation, the ruse to bring together Benedick and Beatrice), words full of sound, veiling their characters' fury, and signifying not the thing that they pretend to represent. The absence of Benedick and Beatrice's child and, more generally, their shared past suggests another manifestation of this theme. By only glimpsing Benedick and Beatrice's previous romance, we can appreciate their "merry war" while remaining distanced enough to find their plight humorous. For us to laugh rather than sympathize, they must make much ado about "nothing"; the source of their pain must remain offstage, just beyond our comprehension.

The technique of implying an undeveloped, fragmentary history for Benedick and Beatrice corresponds to the imagined lost child that haunts their relationship: the details of their previous romance represent a miscarried fiction that complements the fully-conceived narrative, occupying the stage. "I was born to speak all mirth and no matter," Beatrice explains to Don Pedro after rejecting his marriage proposal (II.i.310-1). She is pretending that she is light-hearted, but her explanation also implies that she cannot speak any "matter": she suggests that, because she was born a woman, everything she says is interpreted as mirth. Or she may be hinting that as a woman she must cloak her real feelings with humor. The genre of comedy also demands that she speaks "all mirth" and that what "matters" to Beatrice be communicated in densely allusive language, which continually threatens to undercut the play's light-hearted tone, but can never be explicitly articulated.36


1 William Shakespeare, the Arden Edition of Much Ado about Nothing, ed. A. R. Humphreys (London: Routledge, 1981). Future references will appear parenthetically in the text by act, scene, and line number. In all cases I have checked the text against the first quarto, Much adoe about Nothing (London, 1600), at the Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center at the University of Texas at Austin (STC 22304; Pforz 819).

2 This and all subsequent information regarding the myth of Hercules is taken from Edward Tripp, The Meridian Handbook of Classical Mythology (New York: New American Library, 1970), pp. 275-95. I have also consulted Douglas Bush, Mythology and the Renaissance Tradition in English Poetry (New York: Pagent Book, 1957); and Jean Seznec, The Survival of the Pagan Gods: The Mythological Tradition and Its Place in Renaissance Humanism and Art, trans. Barbara F. Sessions (New York: Pantheon Books, 1953).

3 Ironically, Benedick resembles Hercules not through his feats of strength during the war, but in his acceptance of a woman's sovereignty. He appears most heroic when, at Beatrice's prompting, he severs his friendships with Claudio and Don Pedro, and thus resigns from the battlefield. The two kiddingly taunt Benedick to distract themselves from their "high-proof melancholy," but he remains serious and reserved, gallantly thanking Don Pedro for his "many courtesies" and formally announcing that "I must discontinue your company" (V.i.123, 185-7).

4 Accepting Beatrice's charge, Benedick, like Hercules under Queen Omphale, is made effeminate though still forceful. Beatrice claims that if she were married to a husband without a beard, she would "Dress him in my apparel and make him my waiting-gentlewoman" (II.i.30-1). After learning of Beatrice's love for him, Benedick complies—he shaves, and thus submits, at least symbolically, to her authority. Borachio explicitly refers to a "shaven Hercules" when he contrasts the clothes of "Pharaoh's soldiers" with "Bel's priests" and "the shaven Hercules in the smirched worm-eaten tapestry, where his codpiece seems as massy as his club" (III.iii. 130-4). This image seems to conflate the myth of Hercules with the story of Samson. By simultaneously evoking Hercules' virility and blind Samson's emasculation, the image captures the paradoxical nature of Benedick's changed status. After accepting Beatrice's love, Benedick is both cowed and potent: he shaves according to Beatrice's preference, but in complying with her command he bravely challenges Claudio and defends Hero's honor.

5 Rather than choose the lance or long-distance arrow, Beatrice mocks Benedick's manhood by arming and countering him with this modest weapon.

6 Carol Cook, "The Sign and Semblance of Her Honor': Reading Gender Difference in Much Ado about Nothing," PMLA 101,2 (March 1986): 186-202, 191.

7 Neither the quarto nor the First Folio version punctuates this line.

8 Sandra Cavallo and Simona Cerutti, "Female Honor and the Social Control of Reproduction in Piedmont between 1600 and 1800," in Sex and Gender in Historical Perspective, ed. Edward Muir and Guido Ruggiero, trans. Margaret A. Gallucci (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Univ. Press, 1990), pp. 73-109, 76, 77-8. For the frequency of prenuptial fornication, see Martin Ingram, Church Courts, Sex, and Marriage in England, 1570-1640 (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1987). Ingram claims that the "[a]ttitudes to antenuptial fornication are best summed up as ambivalent but, especially before the end of Elizabeth's reign, tending towards tolerance" (p. 230). For example, the Duke in Measure for Measure (ed. J. W. Lever [London: Routledge, 1992]), claims that Mariana may sleep with Angelo, for "He is your husband on a pre-contract: / To bring you thus together 'tis no sin" (IV.i.72-3).

9 Cavallo and Cerutti, p. 78. As Ralph A. Houlbrooke observes in The English Family 1450-1700 (London: Longman, 1984), such "private agreements or promises . . . might be highly informal" and therefore "could not be enforced at law" (pp. 81-2).

10 For an example of the definition that I am applying here, see Lysander's comment during the rustic's play in A Midsummer-Night's Dream, ed. Harold F. Brooks (London: Routledge, 1991): "Less than an ace, man; for he is dead, he is nothing" (V.i.297). See also Cardinal Wolsey in King Henry VIII, ed. R. A. Foakes (London: Routledge, 1991):

So looks the chafed lion
Upon the daring huntsman that has gall'd him;
Then makes him nothing.


As an example of "nothing" meaning "a nobody," see Imogen's outburst in Cymbeline (ed. J. M. Nosworthy [London: Routledge, 1991]):

No court, no father, nor no more ado
With that harsh, noble, simple nothing,

That Cloten, whose love-suit hath been to me
As fearful as a siege.


11 We can only speculate how devastating Hamnet's death may have been for the author: as the biographer S. Schoenbaum notes, with Hamnet "died Shakespeare's hopes of preserving the family name according to the common way of mankind" (Shakespeare's Lives [Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1991], p. 12). From the parish records we learn that the twins Hamnet and Judith Shakespeare were christened on 2 February 1585, and that Hamnet was buried on 11 August 1596.

12The Historie of the Pitifull Life, and Unfortunate Death of Edward the Fifth (London: William Sheares, 1641; Wing M2688A), Thomas More writes, for example, that "the Dutches had much adoe in her travell, that shee could not be delivered of him uncut, and that hee came into the world the feet forward" (B3v). Similarly, in Thystorye and Lyf of the Noble and Crysten Prynce Charles the Grete Kynge of Frauuce (1485; STC 5013), William Caxton writes "And made no more a-doo to bere hym, than dooth a wulf to bere a lytel lambe."

13 Based on the methods of delivery described in sixteenth- and seventeenth-century guidebooks, the woman whose child died in the womb experienced considerably more pain than the woman who had a "normal" delivery. In The Expert Midwife, Or An Excellent and most necessary Treatise of the generation and birth of Man (London, 1637; STC 21442), for example, Jacob Rueff recommends (and includes pictures of) scraping and pulling devices that appear more torturous than useful.

14 Beatrice's reference to her mother's crying may imply, more generally, her cultural disappointment in giving birth to a daughter, especially such a strong-willed daughter as Beatrice proves to be. But we ought not to underestimate her literal meaning, given that no anesthetics were used during the Renaissance to alleviate the pains of birthing. In Child-birth, or The Happy Deliverie of Women (London, 1612; STC 12496), Jacques Guillemeau only recommends that the laboring woman, "as soone as she feeles her selfe stirred and prouoked with throwes and paines," ought to "walke vp and down the chamber, and then lay herselfe down warm in her bed," repeating this action until "the water bee gathered, and the Matrice be opened" (L4r).

15 William Robertson cites the expression "a burnt whore" in Phraseologia generalis (Cambridge: Daniel Browne, 1693; Wing R1617A), p. 289.

16 According to herbalist encyclopedias, Carduus benedictus was used, among other applications, to assuage fevers, comfort the brain, prevent the plague, induce appetite, cure halitosis, improve the memory, relieve snakebites, and "strengtheneth all the principali partes of the bodie" (see Thomas Cogan, Haven of Health [London, 1584; STC 5478], G3v-G4r; and William Langham, The Garden of Health [London, 1597; STC 15195], E8r-F3r).

17 Langham, E8v, F2r; Rueff, N6 ).

18 See II.i.268, 296 317.

19 In light of all the implications in Beatrice's speeches—sex, childbirth, disease, and loss—her rejection of Don Pedro, which may initially surprise readers, now seems logical. He proposes while she reflects upon the suffering she endured in her past relationship with Benedick and, more generally, the pain associated with being a woman. In this frame of mind, she would not likely accept any man, even a prince.

20 I am following the punctuation of the first quarto, CT. In the Arden Edition of Much Ado about Nothing, Humphreys uses commas to set off the phrase "though bitter."

21 Interestingly, the word "base" not only meant of poor quality, but also denoted illegitimacy, as in Edmund's soliloquy in King Lear (ed. Kenneth Muir [London: Routledge, 1991]): "Why bastard? Wherefore base?" (I.ii.6). Benedick's diction playfully suggests one possible explanation for Beatrice's missing parents. For this definition of "base," see also Henry Cornelius Agrippa, The Commendation of Matrimony, trans. David Clapham (London, 1534), B8r: "For he is base borne, and is the sonne of the people, yea rather the sonne of no man, which is the chylde of a woman not laufully maryed."

22 Susan C. Shapiro in "The Originals of Shakespeare's Beatrice and Hero" (N&Q 25, 2 [April 1978]: 133-4), argues that Penelope Devereaux, the strong-willed wife of Lord Rich, served as a model of Beatrice. Reportedly Devereaux was so independent that she refused to live with her husband "except at odd intervals." If we accept Shapiro's claim, Benedick's "halting sonnet" (V.iv.87) to his lover becomes that much more humorous, for Lady Rich served as the model for Sidney's "Stella," and more generally, as a patron of literature, she often had poems addressed to her. That she bore five children by her lover Lord Mountjoy—which echoes Beatrice's nickname for Benedick, "Signior Mountanto"—suggests that the potential inspiration for Beatrice did not let the niceties of social expectations deter her, even in pursuing her sexual desires.

23 Francis James Child, ed., "The Maid and the Palmer," in The English and Scottish Popular Ballads, 5 vols. (New York: Folklore Press, 1956), 1:232. See also Humphreys, ed., Much Ado about Nothing, p. 111, for other references to this proverb. For the common problem of women abandoning or murdering their illegitimate children so as to avoid the severe consequences of bastardy, see R. V. Schnucker, "The English Puritans and Pregnancy, Delivery and Breast Feeding," History of Childhood Quarterly 1, 4 (Spring 1974): 637-58.

24 We learn the details of the deception piecemeal. I have combined here Borachio's original description of the plot (II.ii.33-50), his boastful conversation with Conrade (III.iii. 139-47), and his confession to Don Pedro and Claudio (V.i.225-38).

25 "The Copy for Much Ado about Nothing, 1600," in Much Ado about Nothing, ed. Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch and John Dover Wilson (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1962), pp. 89-108.

26Othello, ed. E. A. J. Honigmann (Walton-on-Thames, Surrey: Thomas Nelson and Sons, 1997), I.i.20.

27 Norman Rabkin, Shakespeare and the Common Understanding (New York: The Free Press, 1967), p. 13.

28 Ibid.

29 John P. Rumrich, "Shakespeare's Walking Plays: Image and Form in 1 and 2 Henry IV," in Shakespeare's English Histories: A Quest for Form and Gene, ed. John W. Velz (Binghamton: Medieval and Renaissance Texts and Studies, 1996), pp. 111-41, 112, 113.

30 Cook, p. 193.

31 Richard P. Wheeler, Shakespeare's Development and the Problem Comedies: Turn and Counter-Turn ([Berkeley: Univ. California Press, 1981], pp. 2-3), neatly summarizes the various uses of the label "problem comedies." Applying the term only to All's Well that Ends Well and Measure for Measure, Wheeler argues that these two plays "occupy a transitional place in Shakespeare's development of comic form" (p. 2).

32 Responding to critics who have complained that Claudio's violent denunciation at the wedding mars the play's comic tone, Cook argues that this eruption of "naked emotions" is intended to startle us (p. 193).

33 To account for Margaret's participation, Borachio claims that she "knew not what she did" (V.i.295), and Leonato offers the terse, unsatisfactory explanation that

Margaret was in some fault for this,
Although against her will, as it appears
In the true course of all the question.


34 We glimpse the difference between the two stories in the stringency of the two men's punishments: whereas Claudio's labor seems, by his own admission, "overkindness" (V.i.287), Benedick's labor requires that he "Kill Claudio" (IV.i.288). Beatrice's bluntness and alliteration emphasize the severity of what she asks.

35 The word "nothing" also connotes something that is not very much, like a failed romance, which could apply equally to Claudio and Hero as well as Benedick and Beatrice.

36 For advice and encouragement in the writing of this essay, I would like to thank Eric Mallín, Shannon Prosser, and John Rumrich.

Source: "Children of the Mind: Miscarried Narratives in Much Ado about Nothing," in Studies in English Literature, 1500-1900, Vol. 38, No. 2, Spring, 1998, pp. 233-50.

See eNotes Ad-Free

Start your 48-hour free trial to get access to more than 30,000 additional guides and more than 350,000 Homework Help questions answered by our experts.

Get 48 Hours Free Access

Critical Evaluation


Much Ado about Nothing (Vol. 31)