Much Ado about Nothing
Set in Messina, Sicily, Much Ado about Nothing (c. 1598) is generally considered Shakespeare's happiest comedy. It certainly remains one of his most popular—and most frequently performed—plays. Beneath the play's merriment, however, runs a strain of melancholy, because Much Ado about Nothing tells a powerful warning tale of the potential tragedy that can result from deception and miscommunication. The play has two plots. One centers around the wooing of Hero by the soldier-courtier Claudio, a courtship that is temporarily halted by the scheming of the play's villain, Don John. The other plot focuses on the “merry war” between the play's other romantic protagonists, Beatrice and Benedick. Modern audiences tend to identify most with the Beatrice/Benedick story, although scholars point out that Shakespeare intended it as the play's subplot rather than the primary plot. “The first thing to notice about Much Ado about Nothing is that the subplot overwhelms and overshadows the main plot,” claims W. H. Auden (1946). According to Paul and Miriam Mueschke (1967), however, Much Ado about Nothing centers on Hero and Claudio rather than on the more likeable Beatrice and Benedick because the troubled lovers more clearly illuminate the play's major theme: honor. The relationship between the two plots, as well as Claudio's role in the problematic main plot, are popular areas of critical study. Other areas of critical study include the role of rumor and false reports in the play, and the significance of the word “nothing” in the play's title.
Part of the problem with the play's Hero/Claudio story line is that, to modern audiences at least, Claudio appears as an inconsistent and discreditable lover who is too eager to assume the worst about his bride-to-be—character traits not worthy of a story's hero, as many commentators of the play have noted. Other scholars have come to the defense of Shakespeare's characterization of Claudio. Lodwick Hartley (1965) argues that Claudio's supposed inconsistencies can be explained when viewed as the actions of a soldier rather than of a courtier. Jeanne Addison Roberts (1987) suggests that Claudio represents Benedick in his callow youth—the Benedick whom Beatrice says she knew of old. Much of Much Ado about Nothing's comedy comes from the witty exchanges between Beatrice and Benedick. But, as C. O. Gardner (1977) points out, these two comic heroes are weighty characters “with an intense sense of individuality.” Marvin Felheim (see Further Reading) also notes that when they are alone, Beatrice and Benedick always speak in prose, which he says supports the “impression that there is a serious non- or antiromantic side to these Shakespearean comic lovers.” Many scholars have claimed that Beatrice and Benedick are “original” characters, drawn entirely from Shakespeare's imagination. Hugh H. Richmond (1979) believes, however, that literary sources for Beatrice and Benedick can be found, particularly in characters that appear in the Heptameron, a sixteenth-century collection of French tales. The other memorable comic character of Much Ado about Nothing is Dogberry, the vulgar, malapropism-spewing constable who ends up exposing Don John's scheme to block Claudio and Hero's marriage. Dogberry's ego seems to know no bounds, although, as John A. Allen (1973) asserts, he is not the only male character in the play who suffers from an exalted opinion of himself.
Much Ado about Nothing has been popular on the stage since Shakespeare's day. The witty banter of Beatrice and Benedick and the comical bumblings of Dogberry and the Watch have charmed audiences and made the play a success for centuries. Peter Marks (1998) reviews the 1998 Stratford Festival production of Much Ado at New York's City Center. Marks contends that the production was unremarkable and “short on laughs,” criticizes the sterile sets and unappealing costumes, and notes that there was no spark between Martha Henry's Beatrice and Brian Bedford's Benedick. Page R. Laws (2002) describes how New York's Aquila Theatre Company successfully turned Much Ado into a fun, giddy spoof of television's secret agent shows of the 1960s and 1970s. Laws notes that the extensive cutting of the play's original text and the deletion of characters did take their toll—the play's darker elements were lost and the characterization was weakened. However, the critic claims that the “gain in giddiness seemed worth the loss.” Toby Young (2002) declares that he was completely won over by the Royal Shakespeare Company's 2002 production of Much Ado, which was set in Mussolini's Italy. Young calls the production an “unapologetic crowd-pleaser” and particularly praises Nicholas Le Prevost's Benedick. Markland Taylor (2002) examines the Hartford Stage/Shakespeare Theater 2002 staging of the play directed by Mark Lamos. Taylor notes that the production was “surprisingly bloodless and lacking in spontaneity” and finds Karen Ziemba's shrewish Beatrice and Dan Snook's “cutely coy” Benedick unimpressive.
Hearsay plays a major role in the development of Much Ado about Nothing's dual plots; it draws Claudio and Hero apart and Benedick and Beatrice together. As Steven Rose (1970) points out, hearsay also resolves both plots: in one, the Watch overhears the details of Don John's conspiracy to stop Claudio and Hero's marriage; in the other, Beatrice and Benedick are forced to reveal their love-sonnets to each other. Hearsay thus governs love in Much Ado—a point, Rose argues, that is central to understanding the play's more serious comment on “the essentially arbitrary nature of human passion.” Some scholars have suggested that Shakespeare set certain crucial scenes, such as the chamber-window scene in which Claudio and Don Pedro mistake Margaret for Hero, offstage in order to draw audiences' attention to the destructiveness of rumor and false reports. Mark Taylor (see Further Reading) proposes, however, that Shakespeare's failure to dramatize certain plot-driving scenes represents not the absence of something but the presence of the nothing suggested in the play's title. The significance of Much Ado about Nothing's title has long intrigued scholars. Paul Jorgensen (1954) describes how Shakespeare's use of the word nothing in the title and text of Much Ado would have held significant, if sometimes ambiguous, religious and philosophical meanings for Elizabethan audiences. Many scholars have commented on how the play's title serves as a pun on the word noting, which can be defined as the act of observing and eavesdropping as well as the actual writing of physical notes. Anthony B. Dawson (1982) points out that notes are featured throughout the play—from the opening scene, when a note heralds the imminent arrival of Don Pedro and his soldiers to Messina, to the final scene, when the love of Beatrice and Benedick for each other is revealed through their handwritten love-sonnets. This last scene of the play, with its “rebirth” of Hero, comments Dolora Cunningham (see Further Reading), exemplifies how Shakespeare used wonder in his comedies. The audience, Cunningham says, is “expected to join the on-stage characters to contemplate with wonder—with amazement or astonishment or admiration—the unexpected turn of troubled events which lead to marriages and apparent happiness in the end.”