Much Ado About Nothing Much Ado about Nothing (Vol. 78)
by William Shakespeare

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(Shakespearean Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 75,380 words.)