Much Ado About Nothing Much Ado about Nothing (Vol. 78) - Essay

William Shakespeare


(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 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.”

W. H. Auden (essay date 1946)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

SOURCE: Auden, W. H. “Much Ado About Nothing.” In W. H. Auden: Lectures on Shakespeare, reconstructed and edited by Arthur Kirsch, pp. 113-23. Princeton N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2000.

[In the following reconstructed lecture, originally delivered in 1946, Auden discusses how Shakespeare kept Much Ado about Nothing's tragic subplot—the conspiracy of Don John—from overshadowing the play's comic main plot: the romantic duel of wits between Beatrice and Benedick.]

The first thing to notice about Much Ado About Nothing is that the subplot overwhelms and overshadows the main plot. The main plot consists of the story of Hero and Claudio...

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Ruth Nevo (essay date 1980)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

SOURCE: Nevo, Ruth. “Better Than Reportingly.” In William Shakespeare's ‘Much Ado about Nothing,’ edited by Harold Bloom, pp. 5-19. New York: Chelsea House Publishers, 1988.

[In the following essay, originally published in 1980, Nevo suggests that by putting the Hero/Claudio and Beatrice/Benedick plots in Much Ado about Nothing on equal footing, Shakespeare focused our attention on the conflicting motifs of the play.]

Much Ado about Nothing contrasts notably with the early Shrew, which is similarly structured in terms of antithetical couples, not only in its greater elegance of composition and expression, but in its placing of the comic...

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Lodwick Hartley (essay date May 1965)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

SOURCE: Hartley, Lodwick. “Claudio and the Unmerry War.” College English 26, no. 8 (May 1965): 609-14.

[In the following essay, Hartley argues that many of Claudio's purported character inconsistencies in Much Ado about Nothing are actually quite consistent when seen as the actions of a soldier rather than of a courtier.]

Much Ado About Nothing has generally posed more problems to the reader than to the spectator, who has been too busy enjoying the play to bother. But in spite of its great success on the stage, there have remained those who have been disturbed by the alleged tenuous motivation of Don John, who seems to act merely like a stock...

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John A. Allen (essay date winter 1973)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

SOURCE: Allen, John A. “Dogberry.” Shakespeare Quarterly 24, no. 1 (winter 1973): 35-53.

[In the following essay, Allen proposes that Much Ado about Nothing's comic, self-important, and utterly preposterous constable, Dogberry, is not the only character in the play with an inflated ego.]

It is safe to assume that Dogberry, the “right master constable” of Much Ado about Nothing, would appear in anyone's Who's Who of memorable comic characters in Shakespeare; yet he seems largely to have baffled, or at any rate escaped, serious critical attention. Commentators frequently convey the impression that his peculiarities are more to be wondered at...

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C. O. Gardner (essay date October 1977)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

SOURCE: Gardner, C. O. “Beatrice and Benedick.” Theoria 49 (October 1977): 1-17.

[In the following essay, Gardner argues that Beatrice and Benedick in Much Ado about Nothing are not always given their full due as lively, exciting, and even weighty characters.]

Another essay on Beatrice and Benedick! … This one is offered, needless to say, in the belief that there is still more to be said about them. It is not offered, however, in the belief that most of what has been said so far is false. On the contrary, my impression is that, though misinterpretations and inadequate accounts have of course been perpetrated, a fairly large proportion of what has been...

(The entire section is 6893 words.)

Hugh M. Richmond (essay date 1979)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

SOURCE: Richmond, Hugh M. “Much Ado About Notables.” Shakespeare Studies 12 (1979): 49-63.

[In the following essay, Richmond traces the historical precedent for the villainous Don John in Much Ado about Nothing and proposes literary analogues for the play's comic lovers, Beatrice and Benedick.]

From Robert Greene's Groatsworth of Wit, with its bitter warnings to his colleagues against upstart plagiarists, down to Geoffrey Bullough's recent encyclopedic account of Shakespeare's sources and analogues,1 Shakespeare's capacity to build on other men's work has been recognized as intrinsic to his mode of composition as an Elizabethan dramatist....

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Peter Marks (review date 17 November 1998)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

SOURCE: Marks, Peter. “A Pair of Warhorses Come Trotting Down from Canada.” The New York Times 148 (17 November 1998): E2.

[In the following excerpt, Marks reviews the 1998 Stratford Festival production of Much Ado about Nothing at New York's City Center. Marks contends that the production was unremarkable and “short on laughs.”]

The curtain rose at 7:40, but the Stratford Festival did not unveil its capabilities until an hour later.

The moment of revelation came when William Hutt, the celebrated Canadian company's Old Reliable, an actor in his late 70's with the savoir-faire that comes with age, made the force of his presence felt in...

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Page R. Laws (review date 2002)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

SOURCE: Laws, Page R. “Much Ado About Nothing.Theatre Journal 54, no. 2 (2002): 305-07.

[In the following review, Laws describes how New York's Aquila Theatre Company successfully turned Much Ado about Nothing into a giddy spoof of television's secret agent shows of the 1960s and 1970s.]

Shakespeare's classic insights on true love's weal and woe still prove uncannily accurate whether actors wear tights or no. There was certainly much undone to rev up Much Ado in The Aquila Theatre Company's outrageously premised 2001 touring production. The respected Anglo-American company based at New York University turned the 1599 comedy into a spoof of...

(The entire section is 887 words.)

Toby Young (review date 17 August 2002)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

SOURCE: Young, Toby. “Unapologetic Crowd-Pleaser.” Spectator 289, no. 9080 (17 August 2002): 45-6.

[In the following review, Young declares he was completely won over by the Royal Shakespeare Company's 2002 production of Much Ado about Nothing, set in Mussolini's Italy.]

During the interval of Much Ado About Nothing, the RSC's summer block-buster, I sidled up to Ned Sherrin in the bar and started peppering him with questions. Why does Don John hate his brother? What's the back story? And how does Don John hope to get his revenge on his brother by sabotaging the marriage of Hero and Claudio?

“I know your game,” said the presenter...

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Markland Taylor (review date 30 September-6 October 2002)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

SOURCE: Taylor, Markland. “Much Ado About Nothing.Variety 388, no. 7 (30 September-6 October 2002): 36.

[In the following review, Taylor examines the Hartford Stage/Shakespeare Theater 2002 staging of Much Ado about Nothing, directed by Mark Lamos. Taylor finds the production “surprisingly bloodless and lacking in spontaneity.”]

Mark Lamos opens the company's 39th season with this anyone-for-tennis? staging of Shakespeare's Much Ado About Nothing. Set mostly in the garden of an English country house in the 1920s, this Ado—a co-production with D.C.'s Shakespeare Theater, where it plays next—looks glossily expensive and is...

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Paul A. Jorgensen (essay date summer 1954)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

SOURCE: Jorgensen, Paul A. “Much Ado About Nothing.Shakespeare Quarterly 5, no. 3 (summer 1954): 287-95.

[In the following essay, Jorgensen describes how Shakespeare's use of the word nothing in the title and text of Much Ado about Nothing would have held significant, if sometimes ambiguous, religious and philosophical meanings for Elizabethan audiences.]

It is generally agreed that certain words must have given Shakespeare considerably more pleasure than they give us today. The honesty game in Othello, for example, may now impress us as a cleverness unworthy of the tragic stature of the play. I have elsewhere suggested,...

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Paul Mueschke and Miriam Mueschke (essay date winter 1967)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

SOURCE: Mueschke, Paul, and Miriam Mueschke. “Illusion and Metamorphosis in Much Ado about Nothing.Shakespeare Quarterly 18, no. 1 (winter 1967): 53-65.

[In the following essay, the Mueschkes present Much Ado about Nothing as a play primarily about honor and dishonor, particularly “feminine honor sullied by slander.”]

The gaity of Much Ado About Nothing is consistently praised; its somber aspects are either ignored or disparaged. Most critics agree that Much Ado is the gayest of Shakespeare's three joyous comedies, that its theme is courtship, and that the main plot centers on the wooing and winning of Hero. These basic assumptions...

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Steven Rose (essay date April 1970)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

SOURCE: Rose, Steven. “Love and Self-Love in Much Ado About Nothing.Essays in Criticism 20, no. 2 (April 1970): 143-50.

[In the following essay, Rose argues that in Much Ado about Nothing, Shakespeare offered some serious and often somber observations on the nature of love.]

Is Much Ado really ‘about’ nothing? The throw-away title—like that of its immediate successor As You Like It, or the sub-title What You Will to the third of this central group of comedies—is surely more a challenge to the audience to think of a better one than a proclamation of the play's own triviality. Whatever Beatrice, who could see a church by...

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Thomas W. Ross (essay date 1972)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

SOURCE: Ross, Thomas W. “Maimed Rites in Much Ado About Nothing.Costerus: Essays in English and American Language and Literature 5 (1972): 125-34.

[In the following essay, Ross compares Much Ado about Nothing to Shakespeare's problem plays and notes the play's elements of disharmony and ethical ambiguity. Ross contends, however, that the play is not a failure, but “succeeds brilliantly in conveying its bitter-sweet power.”]

Critics have never accepted Much Ado as a problem play—or as a forerunner of the Last Plays, the romances or tragi-comedies. Yet if we are made aware of this drama's affinities with these kinds of play, we can...

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Anthony B. Dawson (essay date spring 1982)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

SOURCE: Dawson, Anthony B. “Much Ado About Signifying.” Studies in English Literature 1500-1900 22, no. 2 (spring 1982): 211-21.

[In the following essay, Dawson discusses how messages and their interpretation (or, more often, misinterpretation) not only propel the plot in Much Ado about Nothing, but also act as signs, or clues, to the play's major themes.]

Thinking about Shakespeare's Much Ado About Nothing led me to thinking about messages and the process of interpretation imposed by the delivery of messages. The play takes up this perfectly ordinary, everyday activity and subjects it to comic scrutiny. In doing so, the play highlights the act of...

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Jeanne Addison Roberts (essay date 1987)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

SOURCE: Roberts, Jeanne Addison. “Strategies of Delay in Shakespeare's Comedies: What the Much Ado Is Really About.” In Renaissance Papers, 1987, edited by Dale B. J. Randall and Joseph A. Porter, pp. 95-102. Durham N.C.: The Southeastern Renaissance Conference, 1987.

[In the following essay, Roberts examines Shakespeare's use of obstacles and delay in Much Ado about Nothing and his other comedies, and contends that the delays “provide audiences with the pleasant anxieties of sustained anticipation.”]

Audiences of Shakespeare's tragic drama predictably and recurringly experience the desire to hold back the rising tide of tragic action, to arrest time, to...

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Paul Skrebels (essay date 1997)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

SOURCE: Skrebels, Paul. “Transhistoricizing Much Ado About Nothing: Finding a Place for Shakespeare's Work in the Postmodern World.” In Teaching Shakespeare into the Twenty-First Century, edited by Ronald E. Salomone and James E. Davis, pp. 81-95. Athens: Ohio University Press, 1997.

[In the following essay, Skrebels attempts to bring out the universal human themes in Much Ado about Nothing by comparing the circumstances of the characters in the play with those of members of the British royal family in late-twentieth-century England—a pedagogical approach Skrebels calls “transhistoricization.”]

Teachers and students studying Shakespeare's plays...

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