Much Ado About Nothing Much Ado about Nothing (Vol. 67) - Essay

William Shakespeare


(Shakespearean Criticism)

Much Ado about Nothing

One of Shakespeare’s most popular comedies, Much Ado about Nothing's appeal arises largely from the witty banter and charisma of Beatrice and Benedick, whose antagonistic relationship and eventual courtship are dramatized in the play's subplot. However, the main plot of the play, involving the docile Hero and the boorish Claudio, is often viewed as a dramatic failure. The relationship between these plots, as well as Claudio's role in the problematic main plot, are popular areas of critical study. Debate regarding the play’s genre is also a topic of modern criticism, and many scholars have studied the play’s deviations from the conventions of romantic comedy. Additionally, the characters' use of language and their view of its relation to political and social power, as well as the play's treatment of the problems related to knowledge and perception, garner much scholarly interest. In critiques of film and stage productions of Much Ado about Nothing, issues regarding characterization, genre, and gender are often discussed, particularly in Kenneth Branagh's 1993 film adaptation.

In his overview of Much Ado about Nothing, Sheldon P. Zitner (1993) discusses the nature of the play's plot construction, highlighting the connections between the Hero-Claudio main plot and the Beatrice-Benedick subplot. Zitner observes that the plots are linked through a number of formal devices, including deception, eavesdropping, and overhearing. Additionally, Zitner examines the play's characters, noting the relevance of contemporary Elizabethan marriage customs to Hero’s loyalty and obedience. Zitner contends that Hero’s passivity is in part explained by immaturity, and that many of Claudio's personality traits, including his immaturity, exemplify the “social style of Honour.” Beatrice and Benedick are also studied extensively by Zitner, who notes that the characters' unconventionality and wit set them apart from Hero and Claudio, but are not their only notable characteristics. Zitner comments on Beatrice's rejection and acceptance of various aspects of patriarchal society, noting that her obedience in her marriage to Benedick will have its boundaries. As for Benedick, Zitner observes that his wit is used to mask his fear of marriage and his longing for Beatrice. In John Wain's (1967) analysis of the play, Claudio is cited as the primary cause of the failure of the main plot. Wain states Shakespeare found the character of Claudio “unattractive,” which caused him to create a “cold, proud, self-regarding, inflexible” hero. Likewise, Richard Henze (1971) focuses on the character of Claudio, finding that it is Claudio, not Don John and his dishonesty, nor Beatrice and Benedick in their unconventionality, that poses the most formidable threat to social harmony. Through Claudio, Henze states, Shakespeare depicted the power that malice attains when it appears respectable.

As Zitner points out, the plot of Much Ado about Nothing relies heavily on deception and the misunderstanding it produces. Critics have also studied a related theme—the play’s treatment of knowledge and perception. Critic Nova Myhill (1999) finds that the numerous depictions of deception in the play highlight Shakespeare's methodology for creating different modes of interpretation. Myhill goes on to argue that while the audience typically assumes it possesses a privileged status in terms of eavesdropping, this notion is undercut by the fact that the characters are repeatedly deceived by their belief that eavesdropping has provided them with direct access to truth. Taking another approach, Carl Dennis (1973) explores the two modes of perception he maintains are at work in the play: wit and wisdom. Whereas wit relies on reason and sensory evidence, wisdom, explains Dennis, is related to a belief in intuitive methods of understanding. In the end, Dennis asserts, wit is portrayed as an unreliable mode of perception, and the fate of the characters depends on their willingness to reject what they perceive through their senses and approach life through faith.

The characters’ attitudes toward language and their use of language to achieve various ends is another area of critical concern. Camille Wells Slights (1993) claims that the characters in Much Ado about Nothing view language as the backbone of social harmony and interaction, contending that the play is primarily concerned with the social nature of language, and with the power of language as an instrument and indicator of social and political hierarchy. In her analysis, Slights discusses the ways characters use and view language, observing for example that Beatrice uses language to acquire independence in a patriarchal society, and that both Beatrice and Benedick fear the power of language to deceive and associate this danger with gender roles and sexual relationships. Like Slights, Maurice Hunt (2000) explores the ways in which the characters employ language, particularly patriarchal language—characterized by irreverence, aggression, and authoritarian tone and content. Hunt demonstrates the way in which this type of speech establishes social dominance through the transformation, dismissal, or oppression of the words and thoughts of others. Hunt observes that the male characters, as well as Beatrice, use patriarchal language to assert social dominance.

Concerns regarding the genre of Much Ado about Nothing form another area of critical study. Walter N. King (1964) maintains that the play is a comedy of manners, and that like other plays of this genre its central theme is the examination of a morally “flabby” aristocratic class that accepts the established social codes without question. King notes that the society remains essentially unchanged at the play’s end, which is expected in a comedy of manners where “the social health depends upon compromise, adjustment, resilience, not upon fundamental social change.” The critic further maintains that it is the characters’ use of wit that enables them to achieve social harmony. Approaching the genre issue from another angle, Laurie E. Osborne (1990) examines Shakespeare's incorporation of elements of the Italian novella into the genre of English comedy. Osborne contends that through his linking of these two genres, Shakespeare explored the contradictions within comic conventions and the problems inherent in combining non-comic and non-dramatic materials with comedy.

Critics also explore issues of genre in their evaluation of modern productions of the play, such as Kenneth Branagh's 1993 film adaptation of Much Ado about Nothing. Celestino Deleyto (1997) contends that Branagh's film belongs to the romantic comedy genre, and uses the play to gauge the changes that the genre has undergone in the last four centuries. Deleyto focuses on the sexual politics and gender tension found in the film, and finds that “[t]he culturally ingrained male fear of women is used and reversed by the film in order to produce a happy ending which, … ensures the continuity of the genre’s traditional structure.” Michael J. Collins (1997) also examines Branagh's film, contending that Branagh downplayed the original play's tension regarding gender roles in order to present the film as a typical, popular Hollywood romantic comedy. In modern stage productions, the play receives various treatments. Tom Provenzano (2000) praises the East Los Angeles Classic Theatre adaptation of Much Ado by Tony Plana and Bert Rosario. Provenzano notes the play, geared toward school-age children, was an excellent introduction to Shakespeare for young people. The critic also notes that despite the major textual cuts the production was faithful to Shakespeare's story and language. Critic Charles Isherwood (see Further Reading) offers a mixed appraisal of a 1998 Stratford Festival production, directed by Richard Monette. While Isherwood praises the performances of the middle-aged Beatrice and Benedick, the critic finds the production as a whole “uneven.” Steven Oxman (see Further Reading) reviews the South Coast Repertory presentation of Much Ado about Nothing, directed by Mark Rucker. Oxman applauds the production, and praises the director’s decision to style the play in a manner reminiscent of a Hollywood Golden Age film.

Criticism: Overviews And General Studies

(Shakespearean Criticism)

SOURCE: Zitner, Sheldon P. Introduction to Much Ado About Nothing, by William Shakespeare, edited by Sheldon P. Zitner, pp. 1-78. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1993.

[In the following excerpt, Zitner surveys the setting and characters of Much Ado about Nothing and discusses the relationship between the Hero-Claudio main plot and the Beatrice-Benedick subplot.]


Unlike many of Shakespeare's plays, Much Ado does not create a strong sense of place. Shakespeare's Messina, as Mario Praz observes, is ‘senz'altro una città imaginaria’.1 It bears no resemblance to Renaissance Messina or any other Italian city of the day. What it does resemble, however, is an Elizabethan town with a simple municipal organization operating under royal charter. Shakespeare's Messina is something of a social backwater; compare the gorgeous wedding gown of the Duchess of Milan with Hero's modest wedding dress which, according to her fashionable gentlewoman, is appropriate to the occasion. There is a provincial overtone in the strain felt by Leonato on receiving Don Pedro and his party; the formality is excessive and observed to be so. Leonato is unused to such exalted guests or to such entertaining. Public rooms, evidently not often open, must be perfumed by specially hired staff (Borachio); for music Leonato must depend on the Prince's man Balthasar. This is hardly Bandello's upscale Messina of the banquets. What Leonato is used to are easy, informal relations with townsfolk such as Dogberry, whom he can address as friend and neighbour. Evidently he is also used to a household without a wife's control, hence to a rather permissive domestic scene dominated by his teenage daughter, Hero, her two gentlewomen, and the unconventional Beatrice. This makes easier Don John's plot to discredit Hero, something that could have taken place only with difficulty in All's Well, whose household organization left no wall without ears.

In other plays the impression of place derives from mutually defining contrasts; town against country, court against tavern, and from evocative scene-setting. Much Ado has little of such poetry—Hero's description of her garden, a few words from Don Pedro on the beauty of the night—and no great removals of the action from place to symbolic place, to a Dover Cliff or a forest of Arden, for example. Social rather than physical ambience concerns the dramatist, but picturesque settings blur rather than clarify that ambience. As a text Much Ado implies a classical spatial economy and a radically stylized setting. With the exception of the church scene in which Claudio denounces Hero, and possibly the supposed penance in 5.3, the action takes place in or near Leonato's mansion.

Earlier editors often attempted to locate the action of individual scenes in the play, usually following Capell, Theobald, and Pope. Of the play's seventeen scenes, at least nine are localized differently by different editors. Generally the issue is whether to place the scene inside Leonato's house, before it, or in the adjoining garden. In only a few instances does the choice seem significant. For example, the depth of Leonato's anxiety and of the deference he shows Don Pedro can be indicated to some extent by the choice of locale: a public room in the governor's house, with its suggestion of Leonato's status, or a more deferential welcome outside.

How casual Shakespeare could be about location unless it affected meaning is clear from 1.2 and 1.3. Scene 1.2 opens with Antonio's second-hand account of Don Pedro and Claudio speaking of Hero when walking ‘in mine orchard’. Thus we also ought to locate all of 1.1 in Antonio's orchard, an unlikely place for receiving the Messenger, unless we think Pedro and Claudio repeated elsewhere their exchange of twenty lines earlier in 1.1. In 1.3 Borachio also claims to have overheard Claudio and Don Pedro discussing the proxy wooing, this time in a musty room. These are knots to be cut by directors, not untied by editors.

Where there is a need to define a place, it takes only a few descriptive lines (Hero's in her garden), minor props (trellis and tree for arbour and concealment), or only the stage architecture itself—as in 3.3 when Borachio and Conrad shield themselves from the weather under a ‘penthouse’, presumably the canopy over part of the stage. The action of Much Ado takes place largely in virtual rather than ‘real’ space, and the properties Shakespeare required for Much Ado were all on hand, an indication of his professional concern for easy transfer to different venues.


The story of Hero and Claudio does not require the whole cast of Much Ado. Hero and Claudio yes, but why Beatrice and Benedick? Leonato, but why Antonio? Margaret, but why Ursula? And why both Conrad and Borachio? Characteristically, the Shakespearian dramatis personae goes beyond the necessities of narrative, constituting a system of contrasting dyads and triads (Hal and Hotspur, Lear's three daughters), and even more sophisticated thematic variants (Hotspur as Time's fool, Hal redeeming it, Falstaff wasting it, Henry IV ‘serving’ it). In part, this systemic pairing reflects a view of character, specifically the Pauline voluntarism that prompts us to ‘look here upon this picture and on this’ in order to judge the characters resulting from the life-choices of Claudius and Hamlet's father.

There are further consequences arising from this process of doubling and tripling. In ‘Emotion of Multitude’, his seminal remarks on Lear, Yeats observes that the reverberations of parallel lives suggest to the audience the universality and hence the likelihood of what is occurring on stage. Shakespeare does with character what he does with scene and incident, maximizing the differences, here between characters brought together by incident (Leonato and Dogberry) or family or occupation (Hero and Beatrice, Dogberry and Verges). The result is vivid delineation, not only for its own sake, but for rapidity in orientating audience attention and easing the writer's task of generating dialogue.

Finally, the playwright is something of a company manager. In writing the play Shakespeare distributes the burden of work so as to sustain the enterprise, demanding of actors only what they can perform, bringing along novices by creating parts that stretch their talents.


Hero and Leander, with George Chapman's continuation of what Christopher Marlowe had left undone, was published in 1598. Even without this jog to memory, Shakespeare might have named his ingénue Hero after the faithful young woman whose lover is drowned swimming to an assignation. Benedick's ironic reference to ‘Leander the good swimmer’ in 5.2 suggests that allusions to the story would have been widely understood. Shakespeare's dependence on its associations is clear from Claudio's puerile repetition of Hero's name as he denounces her.

The Hero of Much Ado is one of Shakespeare's passive young women: obedient, unquestioning, well brought up, thoroughly conventional and rather prudish. As is Polonius speaking of Ophelia, Leonato can be confident when he says of Hero, ‘My daughter tells us all’. With the gardener in Richard II, Hero can gather politically correct platitudes (hers are naïve and unambiguous) from her garden in 3.1; she is uneasy at the sexual innuendo in Margaret's reference in 3.4 to the coming marriage; in 2.1 she is prudently specific in offering to do any ‘modest’ office to unite Beatrice and Benedick. In the brief self-defence she makes in 4.1, she responds with delicate obliqueness to the implicit charge of fornication, but directly to the apparently mentionable charge of conversation ‘At hours unmeet’.

Shakespeare seems at times to do everything but make Hero disappear; unlike Beatrice, this is a part requiring only a second-best boy actor. In 1.1, in answer to Claudio's request for an opinion of her, Benedick, an admittedly unreliable judge of women, finds Hero merely Leonato's ‘short daughter’, ‘too low for a high praise, too brown for a fair praise, and too little for a great praise’. Even Hero's most intense reactions (she blushes and goes pale) are conveyed by someone else, by the Friar, who describes her innocence, her shame, and her rage. Later in the scene it is the Friar who provides an apologia which invents more than describes the ‘lovely’ life of a Hero who speaks so little in her own right. No wonder Shakespeare chose a name that was a label. But even so evocative a name as Hero could not compete in implication with ‘Beatrice’, yet another indication of Shakespeare's curious reversal of traditional priorities in subordinating his ‘main plot.’

Shakespeare's Hero is both a foil for Beatrice and a partial explanation of her character. In 2.1 Antonio asks Hero if she will be ruled by her father in the choice of a husband. Beatrice intervenes, saying that it is Hero's duty to curtsy and act as it pleases her father—adding however, that if the man chosen for her is not handsome, Hero should curtsy again and say ‘“Father, as it please me”’. Beatrice, unlike Hero, is not a highly placed heiress. Older, with no father, and moving toward what was thought an unmarriageable age, she has developed tough—if not single-minded—views which question the constraints imposed on women. She tries to stake out a position of modified obedience for Hero, a position hardly radical when The Miseries of Enforced Marriage, to use the title of a popular play performed by Shakespeare's company in 1607, had long been acknowledged. For Hero, however, Beatrice's compromise might have been unsustainable. The instant change from Hero's preparation for Leonato's ‘dream’ of a match with Don Pedro to her acceptance of Claudio suggests complete pliability.

Yet Hero's loyalty is not witless acceptance. Like her discreetly flirtatious responses to the Prince during their turn around the dance floor, her answer in 3.1 to Ursula's question, ‘When are you married, madam?’ shows some wit: ‘Why, every day, tomorrow.’ Perhaps this also hints at a long-prepared dedication to the social role that might make her ultimate marriage to Claudio plausible. However, Hero is not all conformity and quiet. Beatrice is a fool and you're another, she tells Margaret after Margaret questions her taste in clothes, a matter not of prime interest to Hero. Perhaps the outburst is pre-nuptial jitters. Hero obviously looks to Beatrice as to an older sister, but there may be truth as well as feigning in the critique she makes of Beatrice when trying to trick her into accepting Benedick. Beatrice, Hero says, is ‘self-endeared’; her being ‘so odd from all fashions’ is not commendable; her spirits are as coy and wild as the haggard of the rock.

From the perspective of conformity those who forsake it must always seem to assert an egotistical superiority. Looked at positively, Hero's choice is to be ‘other-endeared’, and so she can be portrayed but this, one can argue, is precisely the self-sacrifice that has been imposed on her. Hero's reference to the ‘haggard’, the female falcon in the wild, need not mean that she accepts a wholly instrumental role. In Shakespeare and His Social Context, Margaret Loftus Ranald, who discusses the term ‘haggard’ in relation to The Taming of the Shrew, points out that the art of falconry distinguished between training and taming, and recognized that training altered both master and bird, whose native wildness it sought to preserve if only for the sake of the hunt.2 The analogy reduces a human to an animal relation, an exploitive one at that, and encourages the male master's illusion that women can be ‘mastered’ without ‘breaking their spirit’. Yet to deny the distinction that was made through the analogy is to ignore a small, ameliorative point of argument in the current discussions of marriage.

By the turn of the century matches like that between Hero and Claudio were already looking out of date or at least rather high aristocratic. Shakespeare had been on safe ground with social opinion in questioning parental interference with a love-match, even in the society of Romeo and Juliet. Yet it was (and still largely is) thought unlikely that a Hamlet would ‘carve for himself’. The matching of a governor's daughter and a count—especially a young count so near a prince—comes close enough to a power transaction to ‘place’ if not extenuate Leonato's heavy-handed management and Hero's acquiescence.

The frequent appearance of dukes and counts in Elizabethan drama may lead to underestimates of the steepness of fortune's hill. Sir Thomas Wilson, describing ‘The State of England’ in a contemporary treatise,3 estimated that in 1600 there were only 60 peers, 500 knights, and 16,000 lesser gentry in a population of 4,000,000. It would have been easy enough for an Elizabethan audience to set the Hero-Claudio match to one side, accepting its rather bloodless quality as highly probable and well observed. The situation of Beatrice and Benedick, unusual as the two and their wooing were, would have seemed closer to courtships the audience actually knew.

At least some of those courtships were influenced by a degree of clerical support for more latitude for women in the conduct of marriage, though not for their parity. Paul's often quoted Letter to the Ephesians 5: 22 (‘Wives, submit to your husbands as to the Lord’) could be countered with Galatians 3:28 in which Paul himself had said that ‘in Christ there is no male or female’. But popular sermons teased an appropriate moral from texts with more picturesque images: Eve was created not from Adam's foot but from his rib, and so it was the divine intention that she walk by Adam's side, not be trodden underfoot. The term ‘helpmeet’ suggests both the limitations and advances implicit in the sermons. Milder attitudes toward women were reflected in the sentimental Frauendienst of romantic plays and poems, more substantially in sermon and homily and, some speculate, in individual marriages, particularly among couples with puritan sympathies.

It is unlikely, however, that Elizabethan marriages were any closer to the norms of advice and preachment than are marriages now. A passage from I. G.'s 1605 Apologie for Women-Kinde4 seems plausible if only because it seems familiar. According to I. G., women gave way to their husbands' authority ‘Only for order’, but ‘the authority is vain’ as ‘every one can tell’. Though clearly partisan, I. G. believes that the God who refrained from casting Eve into slavery or servility also ‘left her guidance to her husband's will’. The result is a familiar blur. The kind of marriage it implies is hardly egalitarian, but as a formula it probably represents, historically, a turn for the better. Progressive humanists could be even more optimistic about the possibilities for mutual contentment in the sexuality and companionship of marriage, as was Erasmus in A Ryght Frutefull Epistle in Laude and Praise of Matrimonie, written about 1530. The actualities of Elizabethan marriage in general are impossible to know and, as Carol Thomas Neely points out,5 there is inadequate evidence for choosing among contradictory assertions about women's improved or worsened lot during the period.

If we are to draw conclusions from what we know of Hero's off-stage aristocratic sisters, it is doubtful that Hero could even look forward to the kind of marriage I. G. described. Don Pedro, a bachelor, had to remind Claudio of the minimal behaviour expected of a husband. In English Society 1580-1680, Keith Wrightson describes the marital fate of young women of the high aristocracy.6 Their lives could be quite empty, and they themselves merely ‘ornamental and idle’ as they stitched away solitary hours while their husbands warred or governed.

Shakespeare has given us a submissive Hero, yet he has also given the actor enough to create a more subtle role. Neither her apparent enthusiasm for her ‘own dear Claudio’, nor her conformity precludes apprehensiveness and regret. When her gown is praised in 3.4, Hero replies, ‘God give me joy to wear it, for my heart is exceeding heavy’. This can be played as virginal jitters but, alternatively, it can also express a pang of resignation to a narrow fate. Hero's answer to Margaret's question about when she is to be married, ‘Why, every day, tomorrow’ may be spoken with grim anticipation, a tone Leonato's heavy-handedness could easily motivate.

Hero's vulnerability is due as much to youth as to social status. Shakespeare remembered Bandello's adolescent heroine in creating what Don John sourly calls this ‘forward March chick’ and in matching her with a ‘start-up’ suitor. Extreme youth is not unusual in engaged couples of the high aristocracy. There is one other young Claudio in Shakespeare, the unfortunate prisoner of Measure for Measure. The two Claudios share only their ordinariness and lack of moral distinction. (The Claudios of the commedia dell'arte were young lovers; perhaps Shakespeare recalled them wryly.) In Much Ado Claudio is addressed as ‘young Claudio’, ‘Lord Lackbeard’, and ‘boy’. He does not bridle at epithets that would have drawn Coriolanus' sword, for the epithets are undeniable.

Immaturity explains and extenuates Hero's passivity, as it does Claudio's too-quick suspicions and his ready acceptance of Don Pedro's offer to woo Hero in his stead. Even Claudio's military prowess, like that of Bertram in All's Well, seems connected with immaturity; indeed, Claudio is a first sketch for Bertram. The Erasmian scepticism about war Shakespeare develops in All's Well through Parolles' follies and Bertram's astounding feats as a teenage Alexander touches Beatrice's tart comments on killing and eating in 1.1 and her deprecation of Benedick's need to associate with some ‘young squarer’, some preocious master of brawling like Claudio. Through Bertram's career Shakespeare will imply that war is as much a boy's as a man's game; Claudio's victory over Don John suggests that the idea was already formed.

Alone onstage at the start of 2.3, Benedick tells us that Claudio in love has ‘turned orthography’ and that his words are a ‘very fantastical banquet’. No one familiar with the play will believe it. Having denied Claudio the sighing and sonneteering of the conventional stage lover, Shakespeare repeats the strategy he used in creating Hero. He makes Claudio in love the matter of someone else's virtuoso soliloquy. The description is a rehearsal of the Benedick-to-be who speaks it. It applies to no Claudio we have seen and it only underscores what he lacks. Claudio does make a brief declaration in 2.1, just after Leonato has offered him Hero in marriage. ‘Lady,’ he says to Hero, ‘as you are mine, I am yours. I give away myself for you, and dote upon the exchange.’ The speech is provoked by Beatrice's prodding of the lovers to declare themselves. It is weakened rather than justified by Claudio's insistence that his silence is ‘the perfectest herald of joy’, and by two rather cool formulations: ‘as you are mine’ and I ‘dote upon the exchange’ (italics mine). Why posit what sounds like a condition, and why not dote on the lady herself?

Anyone unfamiliar with Elizabethan marriage laws and customs would not realize that the words Claudio speaks constitute, as do the two other such exchanges in the last scene, espousals de praesenti, a form of union then considered virtually indissoluble. Thus there may be some slight extenuation for Claudio's later misbehaviour in the legal character of the commitments here, in the handfast—a probable piece of stage business—and the kiss. But Shakespeare does nothing to underline the point. Later he will neglect it again in the case of the Claudio of Measure for Measure, where the stakes are even higher.

As aristocratic suitor, if not as young lover, Claudio is highly plausible. He consults his elders, Benedick and the Prince, describing to his commander his subordination of his initial ‘liking’ of Hero to the ‘task in hand’. Now that ‘warthoughts / Have left their places vacant’, ‘soft and delicate desires’ have ‘come thronging’ in, ‘All prompting me how fair young Hero is, / Saying I liked her ere I went to wars’. This is a report to a superior rather than a confession of love; Claudio's thoughts and feelings come curiously self-propelled and nicely prioritized; nor do they overflow their categories. It is tempting to imagine Don Pedro with tongue in cheek when he warns Claudio that he will be ‘like a lover presently, / And tire the hearer with a book of words’. Don Pedro's offer to intercede with Leonato has the right cachet, and Claudio does not hesitate. Nevertheless he is still concerned about appearances: ‘lest my liking might too sudden seem, / I would have salved it [prepared for his declaration of love] with a longer treatise’.

Claudio can hold his own in scenes of soldierly ragging (indeed he must if Shakespeare is to write them without introducing more characters), but the verbal leanness of a minor part accords with this limited sensibility whose thoughts and feelings come from narrow conceptions of soldierliness and personal honour. As David Cook points out, in both 1.1 and 2.1 Claudio is on stage for sixty lines before he speaks a word.7 But when he thinks that his honour is at stake, as in the church scene, he can find words enough.

When he does speak at length, Claudio is unsympathetic. Like his mentor Don Pedro and some of Shakespeare's other command-figures (Henry V, the Duke in Measure for Measure, Prospero), Claudio is an instigator of spectacle. An unpleasant self-satisfaction prompts both his decision to denounce Hero before all the congregation and the denunciation itself. ‘But fare thee well, most foul, most fair; farewell / Thou pure impiety and impious purity’: the rhetoric is mechanical and absolute. That it has as its primary aim the advertisement of Claudio's own still spotless honour only makes it worse. However, Don Pedro and even Leonato accept the charges as proved. This may not be the exoneration of Claudio for which T. W. Craik argues,8 but at least it demonstrates that Claudio is not unique, not exclusively the ‘hateful young cub’ Andrew Lang thought him. However, the Friar's plan to lead Claudio to remorse through Hero's supposed death simply fails, as his behaviour and the Prince's in 5.1 show. Any expression of remorse has to be projected into the two lines (5.1.245-6) in which Claudio tells of the return of Hero's image ‘In the rare semblance that I loved it first’. No matter how impressive the ritual at Hero's shrine, wishfulness cannot explain away Claudio's defects, but criticism that isolates Claudio overlooks the ideological breadth of Shakespeare's unpleasant portrayal of Hero's accusers.

Propriety, plausibility, laconic speech and cliché, absence of intimate feeling, a touchy concern for (male) opinion—in all these Claudio exemplifies the social style of Honour. Add to this his youth, and his ready suspicion first of Don Pedro and then of Hero becomes ‘natural’. Yet both suspicions are suspicions of Hero, not ‘natural’ but exaggerations of accepted misogynist absurdities, here given a romantic coloration: if Don Pedro has betrayed him it is not because Don Pedro is disloyal but because, as Claudio bitterly observes at the ball after being taken in by Don John's lies, ‘beauty is a witch / Against whose charms faith melteth into blood’, blood being our common sexuality. W. H. Auden wrote that had Claudio's love been ‘all he imagined it to be, he would have laughed in Don John's face’.9 But Claudio loved honour, not only more, but almost exclusively.

Yet even with honour as a motive for his blindness, can one accept Claudio's excuse, ‘sinned I not / But in mistaking’? And does his response to Leonato's second offer of a bride (‘Your over kindness doth wring tears from me’) give us at last a Claudio ‘fit’ for marriage; or only a Claudio grateful for any way out of a situation in which his honour is at risk? Auden, already generous to Claudio even in condemnation, thought him fit, as have others, if only because exonerating Claudio, according to Robert Grams Hunter, allows audiences to have the ‘comic experience’.10 Yet the question is not whether ‘we’ exonerate Claudio, although we are free to do so. We can find him innocent and Don John the only guilty party, as does Craik.11 We can forgive his youth; view the death of Hero as a symbolic purging of Claudio's offence, as does David Cook;12 or stage it, as did Trevor Nunn, so that ‘Claudio's penance at the tomb [would] not be undervalued’.13 Or we can take our cue from Leonato and Hero. But if the plot ‘forgives’ Claudio, the script seems less ready to do so. How is the actor to speak and behave in 4.1 and 5.1? How make his eagerness to wed even an Ethiope contrition rather than only care for his honour, which marriage into Leonato's family will clear? The treatment of Claudio in performance is a measure of how far directors are willing to risk the dark side of the play.

It is a mistake to dismiss Hero and Claudio as merely ‘ordinary’ and ‘uninteresting’. The ordinary has its own interest; it is where nature puts her bets on survival. Further, Hero and Claudio are painful historical portraits, and if their attitudes are commonplace they are necessarily so in order to define the rare luck of their quarrelsome intellectual superiors. There is, in addition, a canny irony in Shakespeare's enlisting such agents in a romantic plot. As John Russell Brown observed, Much Ado will not ‘betray its secret to … piecemeal criticism’.14

Beatrice and Benedick are older, more experienced, less constrained socially and intellectually, more sensitive and more expressive. They were also intended to be more active physically. In her book On Some of Shakespeare's Characters, one of the great nineteenth-century Beatrices, Helen Faucit, conceived of Beatrice as ‘tall, lithe, quaint and sportive’.15 The parcelling out of traits among the lovers is a nice instance of theatrical pragmatism. An older (and taller) boy would have been needed for the older, more difficult role of Beatrice; hence a diminutive Hero for the sake of contrast as well as the impression of extreme youth. A tall Benedick was needed as a physical match for Beatrice, and further attributes, such as his being a ‘valiant trencherman’, followed. Beatrice's remark in the last scene that she had been told that, for love of her, Benedick was ‘in a consumption’ may be a joking allusion to the actor's size. Perhaps Thomas Pope, the large comic actor who played Falstaff and Sir Toby Belch, created the role.16

Beatrice and Benedick are more than unconventional contrasts to the younger couple's conventionality. They are blessed, not in being the Perfect Conduct-book Couple, but as individuals singled out for unusual gifts, among them their talents, their second chance, and each other. Beatrice, however, is more thoroughly blessed; the gift to Benedick seems centred on words. Appropriately, his name entered the language as a now obsolete generic term for newly married bachelors of long standing; it served as a compliment in the days when that status had a sentimental import.

Beatrice and Benedick are best remembered as linguistic...

(The entire section is 11521 words.)

John Wain (essay date 1967)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

SOURCE: Wain, John. “The Shakespearean Lie-Detector: Thoughts on Much Ado about Nothing.Critical Quarterly 9, no. 1 (spring 1967): 27-42.

[In the following essay, Wain investigates the flaws and the novelistic qualities of Much Ado about Nothing, focusing in particular on the weaknesses of the main plot and the play's verse.]


Much Ado about Nothing is a play that might well halt the critic of Shakespeare in his amble through the plays, in much the same way as Hamlet halts him: a strong, buoyant, uneven piece of work. It could not possibly be called a failure, and yet it could not be described as a total...

(The entire section is 7882 words.)

Richard Henze (essay date 1971)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

SOURCE: Henze, Richard. “Deception in Much Ado About Nothing.Studies in English Literature 1500-1900 11, no. 2 (spring 1971): 187-201.

[In the following essay, Henze offers an analysis of Claudio's character that focuses on the threat Claudio poses to social harmony.]

Two major difficulties in Much Ado About Nothing, the question of unity and the character of Claudio, periodically reappear to be resolved or unresolved by the critics. On the first problem, critical opinion has been divided. While some critics feel that there is an inartistic disharmony in the combination of Hero and Claudio with Benedick and Beatrice,1 that the play's...

(The entire section is 5648 words.)

Donald McGrady (essay date 1993)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

SOURCE: McGrady, Donald. “The Topos of ‘Inversion of Values’ in Hero's Depiction of Beatrice.” Shakespeare Quarterly 44, no. 4 (winter 1993): 472-6.

[In the following essay, McGrady reviews the way Beatrice inverts rhetorical tradition through her persistently negative appraisal of her suitors, and argues that upon overhearing Hero's description of her, Beatrice is made aware of her flaws and is finally able to open herself up to love.]

In act 3, scene 1, of Much Ado About Nothing, Hero incites Beatrice to love Benedick by staging a scene for her to overhear in which Hero censures Beatrice's custom of criticizing all her suitors, of turning their...

(The entire section is 3364 words.)

Kenneth Branagh (essay date 1993)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

SOURCE: Branagh, Kenneth. Introduction to Much Ado About Nothing, by William Shakespeare, with Screenplay, Introduction, and Notes on the Making of the Movie by Kenneth Branagh, pp. vi-xvi. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1993.

[In the following essay, Branagh describes his approach to filming Much Ado about Nothing. Branagh discusses his focus on character, comments on the film's casting and his adaptation of the text, and notes that most of the cuts he made were for the purpose of eliminating plot repetition.]

Why make a new film of Much Ado About Nothing? In this century, Shakespeare's play has been produced as a feature film on four occasions....

(The entire section is 5048 words.)

Celestino Deleyto (review date 1997)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

SOURCE: Deleyto, Celestino. “Men in Leather: Kenneth Branagh's Much Ado about Nothing and Romantic Comedy.” Cinema Journal 36, no. 3 (spring 1997): 91-105.

[In the following review, Deleyto studies Branagh's treatment of genre and gender issues in his 1993 film adaptation of Much Ado about Nothing.]

Recent writing on romantic comedy has taken the view that the genre has died, been reborn, and reached a peak of popularity in the course of the last fifteen to twenty years. Reacting to Brian Henderson's well-known article on the “agony” of contemporary romantic comedy, Bruce Babington and Peter Evans, for example, affirm the ongoing validity of the genre's...

(The entire section is 8142 words.)

Michael J. Collins (review date 1997)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

SOURCE: Collins, Michael J. “Sleepless in Messina: Kenneth Branagh's Much Ado About Nothing.Shakespeare Bulletin 15, no. 2 (spring 1997): 38-9.

[In the following review, Collins contends that in his 1993 film version of Much Ado about Nothing, Branagh downplayed the tension regarding gender roles found in Shakespeare’s play in order to present the film as a romantic comedy in the popular Hollywood style.]

The availability of Kenneth Branagh's Much Ado About Nothing on videotape has provided me a way of exploring some of the issues involved in staging Shakespeare's comedies. As many people have pointed out, Claudio's question to Don Pedro in...

(The entire section is 2048 words.)

Tom Provenzano (review date 2000)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

SOURCE: Provenzano, Tom. “Much Ado About Nothing: Mariachi Style.” Theatre Journal 52, no. 1 (March 2000): 118-19.

[In the following review, Provenzano assesses a 1999 East Los Angeles Classic Theatre adaptation of the play Much Ado about Nothing by Tony Plana and Bert Rosario, describing the production as an excellent introduction to Shakespeare for young people.]

Truncated versions of Shakespeare's canon provide millions of school-age children their first experiences with classic theatre while fulfilling the artistic desires and commercial needs of youth theatre companies across the country. Few of these outings, however, create the rich cultural...

(The entire section is 829 words.)

Walter N. King (essay date 1964)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

SOURCE: King, Walter N. “Much Ado About Something.Shakespeare Quarterly 15 (1964): 143-55.

[In the following essay, King maintains that Much Ado about Nothing is a comedy of manners, and that like other plays of this genre its central theme is the examination of a morally “flabby” aristocratic class that accepts the established social codes without question.]


What to do with Much Ado About Nothing has bedeviled Shakespearians for longer than one likes to think. And no wonder, when critics dismiss the play, if only by implication, as a charming potboiler, archly comic for the most part, but, in Acts IV and V,...

(The entire section is 7315 words.)

Carl Dennis (essay date 1973)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

SOURCE: Dennis, Carl. “Wit and Wisdom in Much Ado About Nothing.Studies in English Literature, 1500-1900 13, no. 2 (spring 1973): 223-37.

[In the following essay, Dennis explores the two modes of perception he maintains are at work in Much Ado about Nothing: wit and wisdom. In the end, Dennis asserts, wit is portrayed as an unreliable mode of perception.]

Recent critics of Much Ado About Nothing have tended to agree with Mr. Graham Storey's convincing suggestion that the play is about “man's irrestible propensity to be taken in by appearances.”1 “Deception,” Mr. Storey writes, “operates at every level of Much Ado:...

(The entire section is 5759 words.)

Laurie E. Osborne (essay date 1990)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

SOURCE: Osborne, Laurie E. “Dramatic Play in Much Ado about Nothing: Wedding in the Italian Novella and English Comedy.” Philological Quarterly 69, no. 2 (spring 1990): 167-88.

[In the following essay, Osborne analyzes Much Ado about Nothing as an integration of the Italian novella and the English comedy. Osborne asserts that through his linking of these two genres, Shakespeare explored the contradictions within comic conventions and the problems inherent in combining non-comic and non-dramatic materials with comedy.]

In Much Ado about Nothing, Shakespeare creates two plots from a single principal source—the slandered maiden tale which...

(The entire section is 8641 words.)

Camille Wells Slights (essay date 1993)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

SOURCE: Slights, Camille Wells. “The Unauthorized Language of Much Ado About Nothing.” In Shakespeare's Comic Commonwealth, pp. 171-89. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1993.

[In the following essay, Slights asserts that one of the main concerns of Much Ado about Nothing is the social nature of language and its relationship to hierarchical social and political power.]

‘and two men ride of a horse, one must ride behind’


In the first scene of Much Ado About Nothing, when Claudio and Don Pedro make fun of Benedick's use of a conventional verbal formula, Benedick retorts: ‘Nay, mock not, mock...

(The entire section is 8868 words.)

Nova Myhill (essay date 1999)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

SOURCE: Myhill, Nova. “Spectatorship in/of Much Ado About Nothing.Studies in English Literature, 1500-1900 39, no. 2 (spring 1999): 291-311.

[In the following essay, Myhill observes that Much Ado about Nothing is centrally concerned with the problems related to knowledge and perception, and argues that the depiction in the play of numerous deceptions highlights Shakespeare's methodology for creating different modes of interpretation.]

In the past twenty years, a great deal of criticism has focused on concerns about appearances in the early modern period, particularly in terms of “self-fashioning”;1 in this article, I want to look at...

(The entire section is 9523 words.)

Maurice Hunt (essay date 2000)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

SOURCE: Hunt, Maurice. “The Reclamation of Language in Much Ado about Nothing.Studies in Philology 97, no. 2 (spring 2000): 165-91.

[In the following essay, Hunt studies the characters' usage of patriarchal speech in Much Ado about Nothing, demonstrating the way in which this type of speech establishes social dominance through the transformation, dismissal, or oppression of the words and thoughts of others.]

Interpreters of Much Ado about Nothing have often remarked that Shakespeare focuses in this middle comedy upon the faculty of hearing. And indeed “nothing,” in its senses of listening and eavesdropping, does much to complicate and...

(The entire section is 11540 words.)

Further Reading

(Shakespearean Criticism)


Dawson, Anthony B. “Much Ado About Signifying.” Studies in English Literature, 1500-1900 22, no. 2 (spring 1982): 211-22.

Investigates the role of messages in the play, including an examination of the characters who deliver the messages, and the ways in which the messages are received, interpreted, and misinterpreted.

Hassel, R. Chris, Jr. “‘Man Is a Giddy Thing’: Repentance and Faith in Much Ado about Nothing.” In Faith and Folly in Shakespeare's Romantic Comedies, pp. 77-109. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1980.

Studies the thematic and structural relevance of Christian doctrine...

(The entire section is 441 words.)