Much Ado About Nothing Much Ado about Nothing (Vol. 55) - Essay

William Shakespeare


(Shakespearean Criticism)

Much Ado about Nothing

One of Shakespeare's most popular comedies, Much Ado about Nothing combines a cheerful mood with an intricate series of deceptions and miscommunications. As Richard Ornstein (1986) summarizes, the play “is warm as well as witty, and compassionate in its view of human frailties and limitations.” The play focuses on the conflict between Beatrice and Benedick, whose relationship takes place as a subplot within the narrative of Claudio's courtship, rejection, and rejuvenated love of Hero. The unconventionality of Beatrice and Benedick's relationship, which is based on an apparent mutual dislike, delight in wordplay, and the conspiratorial matchmaking of their family and friends, has frequently captured the interest of contemporary critics and modern audiences. Feminist critics of the late twentieth century have been drawn to the play’s themes related to the feminine ideal and patriarchal authority. Other critics have focused on the misuse of political power and of ineptitude on the part of authorities in the play, as well as the seriousness of the “nothing”—triviality, silences, scenes unseen, and nonsense.

Beatrice's character, who is depicted as Benedick’s equal in intelligence and will, has drawn the attention of feminist critics. Her well-known exclamation, “O that I were a man … !” and her assertiveness mark her difference from Hero's conventional femininity. Kathleen L. Carroll (1990) looks to how Beatrice’s character was portrayed in two nineteenth-century productions of Much Ado about Nothing in order to find “insight into the conflicting perceptions of femininity on the American stage.” Claire McEachern (1988) contends that the play reflects Shakespeare’s questioning of patriarchal authority and his desire to examine its root causes. McEachern argues that Much Ado about Nothing dramatizes the conflicts and tensions within a patriarchal structure, particularly in its portrayal of the relationship between Hero and her father. Contesting this reading, Roy Battenhouse (1991) claims that Leonato's response to Claudio's rejection of Hero is absurdly overdrawn, and plays into the spirit of the comedy, rather than providing serious social critique. He argues that the play is best understood through Christian conceptions of redemption and resurrection, expressed in the Friar's advice to Hero: “Die to live.” Recent feminist criticism has increasingly focused on the subtleties of Hero's characterization. Some critics have read Hero's treatment at the hands of her father and Claudio as Shakespeare’s critique of feminine conventionality and the weakness of the feminine ideal in Elizabethan culture. Mark Taylor argues that Hero's silence at Claudio's declaration of love can be performed either as a momentary modest pause, or as an “implied ellipsis” that disturbs the conventionality of her role.

The tension in the play between the order established by authorities and the disorder constantly threatening this stability implies, as some scholars conclude, a different kind of cultural critique—that of the corruption or inefficiency of the political authorities of Shakespeare's time. The ineptness of Dogberry and the Watch, who ultimately do unravel Don John's scheme to undermine the marriage of Claudio and Hero, serves as a farcical subplot to the main dramatic action. Phoebe Spinrad (1992) contends that they bring order to the stage and affirm the general stability and political health of Messina. Gavin Edwards (1991) suggests that Shakespeare's attention to the temporal order of the play reinforces the impression that the audience is intended to see the intertwining of order and disorder. Ornstein comments on the mercurial change in the emotional tenor of the play's scenes as a reflection of the chaos—emotional and social—brought on by the human weaknesses of deceitfulness and gullibility. Claudio's character in particular reveals the difficulty of the comedy: his enactment of the “tradition of the courtly lover,” as Karen Newman remarks (1985), brings him to repudiate Hero without arousing the loathing of the audience, so that he can redeem himself fully at the second wedding. Newman claims, “Mistaken identity, role-playing and alternate identities are therapeutic instruments which lead the characters to self-knowledge. …”

Several recent critics have attempted to articulate the significance of the title of the play: the role of what seems trivial, absurd, or unspoken. In addition to Hero's silences, the plot is confused by what have been termed “problematic” elements: the history of the relationship between Benedick and Beatrice, Claudio's callousness and subsequent regret, and why Hero cannot provide an alibi when she accused of being “but the sign and semblance of her honour.” David Ormerod examines how the word “fashion” functions as an alias for the word “nothing” in certain instances in the play, and contends that fashion “is the real villain of the play, and that its destructive function is recognised to a greater or lesser extent by many of the play's characters.” Stephen Dobranski (1998) elaborates on the hints in the text regarding Beatrice’s emotional history with Benedick, and suggests that the “nothing” of the title includes an “imagined lost child that haunts their relationship.” The ellipses, missing scenes, and trivialities that complicate the drama are, according to these writers, intimately bound up with its significance, and enrich its portrait of human interaction even as they interrupt any simple determination of genre.

Robert Ornstein (essay date 1986)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

SOURCE: “Much Ado about Nothing,” in Shakespeare's Comedies: From Roman Farce to Romantic Mystery, University of Delaware Press, 1986, pp. 119-40.

[In the following essay, Ornstein introduces Much Ado about Nothing by examining the characters and changing moods of the play and comparing it to Shakespeare's other comedies.]

If Much Ado is not the most genial of the comedies, it is perhaps the most satisfying in form and substance. It is warm as well as witty, and compassionate in its view of human frailties and limitations. Its chief characters, Beatrice and Benedick, are the most attractive pair of lovers in the comedies—the only ones perhaps...

(The entire section is 10456 words.)

Michael Mangan (essay date 1996)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

SOURCE: “Much Ado about Nothing,” in A Preface to Shakespeare's Comedies, 1594-1603, Longman Group Limited, 1996, pp. 179-201.

[In the following essay, Mangan studies the comedic language in Much Ado about Nothing, and finds it to be a reflection of Shakespeare's conception of romantic antagonism.]


Much Ado About Nothing picks up on the themes of two of the early comedies examined in Chapter 5: The Taming of the Shrew and Love's Labour's Lost. The analogies with The Shrew have often been remarked upon. Beatrice, like Kate, has words like ‘shrewd’ and ‘curst’...

(The entire section is 9335 words.)

Claire McEachern (essay date 1988)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

SOURCE: “Fathering Herself: A Source Study of Shakespeare's Feminism,” Shakespeare Quarterly, Vol. 39, No. 3, Fall, 1998, pp. 269-90.

[In the following essay, McEachern examines differences in Much Ado about Nothing and King Lear as compared to their original sources and contends that the changes Shakespeare made reflect his questioning of patriarchal authority and his desire to examine its root causes.]

The collaboration of critical methods suggested by the title of this essay might appear a rather unlikely, even forced, proposition. Source study and feminism are a strange pair: the first is largely interested in finding in Shakespeare verbal echoes...

(The entire section is 12255 words.)

Kathleen L. Carroll (essay date 1990)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

SOURCE: “The Americanization of Beatrice: Nineteenth-Century Style,” Theatre Survey, Vol. 31, No. 1, May, 1990, pp. 67-84.

[In the following essay, Carroll examines two nineteenth-century American portrayals of Beatrice and contends that each reflects a different idealization of femininity.]

To nineteenth-century theatre managers, who believed in the play as a commercial venture rather than an aesthetic one, portrayal of the modern American woman presented a dilemma. Sophisticated theatre-goers, familiar with the rhetoric of the women's suffrage movement, looked to female role models for direction on how to maintain a delicate balance between independence and...

(The entire section is 6140 words.)

Roy Battenhouse (essay date 1991)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

SOURCE: “Toward Understanding Patriarchy in Much Ado,Shakespeare Yearbook, Vol. 2, Spring, 1991, pp. 193-200.

[In the following essay, Battenhouse criticizes Claire McEachern’s interpretation of patriarchal issues in Much Ado about Nothing, particularly for its lack of consideration of the play’s Christian aspects.]

My aim in this brief essay is to sketch an alternative to Claire McEachern's recent depiction of Shakespeare in “Fathering Herself” (SQ 39:269-90) as a critic of patriarchy. His portrayal of fathers, she writes, “refuses to authorize patriarchal power” (288). She offers her analysis as a contrast to that of Kathleen...

(The entire section is 2826 words.)

Karen Newman (essay date 1985)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

SOURCE: “Mistaking in Much Ado,” in William Shakespeare's Much Ado about Nothing, edited by Harold Bloom, Chelsea House Publishers, 1988, pp. 123-32.

[In the following essay, originally published in 1985, Newman explores the mingling of comedy and tragedy in Much Ado about Nothing, and compares it toMeasure for Measure.]

Many readers of Much Ado about Nothing have remarked that its tragicomic pattern sets it apart from Shakespeare's other romantic plays and links it with the so-called problem comedies. I want to turn finally to Much Ado because it brings us full circle to Measure for Measure. Unlike the threatened tragedy of...

(The entire section is 3983 words.)

Gavin Edwards (essay date 1991)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

SOURCE: “Anticipation and Retrospect in Much Ado about Nothing,Essays in Criticism, Vol. XLI, No. 4, October, 1991, pp. 277-90.

[In the essay that follows, Edwards considers Much Ado about Nothing as “a play much preoccupied with … the narrative ordering of human life.”]

The relationship between life and stories about life has exercised a number of philosophers, theologians, literary critics and experimental novelists in recent years. Barbara Hardy, who has already made an important contribution to these discussions, now draws our attention to Shakespeare's interest in the ‘narrative motions’ of the human mind (‘Shakespeare's Narrative:...

(The entire section is 4883 words.)

Phoebe S. Spinrad (essay date 1992)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

SOURCE: “Dogberry Hero: Shakespeare's Comic Constables in Their Communal Context,” Studies in Philology, Vol. LXXXIX, No. 2, Spring, 1992, pp. 161-78.

[In the following essay, Spinrad argues that the constables are reassuring figures—despite and due to their ineptitude—within the more sinister power dynamics in Much Ado about Nothing and Measure for Measure.]

Dogberry and Elbow, Shakespeare's most famous comic constables, have long been recognized both as satiric commentary on the corruptions in Elizabethan local law-enforcement systems and as thematic commentary on the judicial or social systems within the larger scope of their plays. Of course, beyond...

(The entire section is 7562 words.)

Jonathan Hall (essay date 1995)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

SOURCE: “From Double Words to Single Vision: Patriarchal Desire in Much Ado about Nothing and Othello,” in Anxious Pleasures: Shakespearean Comedy and the Nation-State, Farleigh Dickinson University Press, 1995, pp. 170-93.

[In the essay that follows, Hall contends that both Much Ado about Nothing and Othelloundermine—through their use and treatment of language—the establishment of any single interpretation of the texts.]

The opening witty dialogue in Much Ado About Nothing between Beatrice and Benedick consists in a deadlocked rivalry, which seeks to deny that there is a relationship between them:

Beatrice. I...

(The entire section is 9744 words.)

David Ormerod (essay date 1972)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

SOURCE: “Faith and Fashion in Much Ado about Nothing,Shakespeare Survey, Vol. 25, 1972, pp. 93-105.

[In the following essay, Ormerod examines how the word “fashion” functions as an alias for the word “nothing” in certain instances in the play, and contends that fashion “is the real villain of the play, and that its destructive function is recognised to a greater or lesser extent by many of the play's characters.”]

Most critics who have written on the subject of Much Ado about Nothing seem agreed that the play must take its place in Shakespeare's incessant debate about the conflict between appearance and reality, and the difficulties...

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Stephen B. Dobranski (essay date 1998)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

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

[In the following essay, Dobranski traces the “undeveloped, fragmentary history” of the relationship between Benedick and Beatrice, which inflects the light mood of the comedy with tragic elements.]

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


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Further Reading

(Shakespearean Criticism)

Evans, G. Blakemore. “Dogberry and Job.” Notes and Queries 235, No. 2 (June 1990): 183.

Reads Dogberry's plea to be “writ down an ass” as an echo of Job's serious request that his “wordes were now written.”

Friedman, Michael D. “The Editorial Recuperation of Claudio.” Comparative Drama 25, No. 4 (Winter 1991-92): 369-86.

Discusses the staging issues surrounding Claudio's rejection of Hero and subsequent redemption.

Hunter, Robert Grams. “Forgiving Claudio.” In Twentieth Century Interpretations of Much Ado about Nothing, edited by Walter R. Davis, pp. 60-66. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.:...

(The entire section is 409 words.)