Much Ado about Nothing
One of Shakespeare's most popular romantic comedies, Much Ado about Nothing (c. 1598) features a dual plot of courtship and deception resolved in typical Shakespearean comic fashion—with reconciliation, marriage, and celebration. Set in Messina, the drama centers on the wooing of young, beautiful Hero by the soldier-courtier Claudio, a courtship temporarily halted by the scheming of the play's ostensible villain, Don John. In a parallel plot, the reluctant lovers Beatrice and Benedick engage in a sustained battle of verbal wit before eventually recognizing their affection for one another. Scholars have recognized a strain of melancholy beneath the play's merriment, however, and note that the work functions simultaneously as both a lighthearted comedy and a near-tragic cautionary tale of deceit and miscommunication. Modern audiences tend to identify most with the Beatrice-Benedick subplot, frequently dismissing the boorish Claudio and the docile Hero as immature and less interesting figures. In addition to the play's characters, critics are interested in the relationship between the two plots, as well as the play's themes of deception and social responsibility.
Critical and popular consensus finds Beatrice and Benedick as the two most compelling characters in Much Ado about Nothing, despite their relegation to what scholars view as the drama's humorous subplot. While this witty pair continues to elicit a considerable share of study, commentators are also interested in the sources and dynamics of Shakespeare's Hero-Claudio pairing as well as the play's darker, more disturbing characters. Charles T. Prouty (1950) investigates the sixteenth-century literary sources of Much Ado about Nothing's couples, identifying the models for Claudio-Hero and Beatrice-Benedick. Prouty notes that Claudio strongly departs from the conventional romantic lover in his caddish behavior, while Hero reflects a state of near total passivity, extreme even for a romance heroine. Prouty contends that Benedick and Beatrice, by contrast, appear to have no strict parallels in prior romance literature. A. R. Humphreys (1981) surveys Much Ado's romance sources, which include Ariosto's Orlando Furioso (1516), Matteo Bandello's La Prima Parte de le Novelle (1554), and Belleforest's Le Troisième Tome des Histories Extraites des oeuvres Italiennes de Bandel (1569). Like Prouty, Humphreys comments on Shakespeare's adaptation and alteration of these and other texts in crafting Beatrice, Benedick, Claudio, and Hero, as well as Dogberry and his comical Watch. Richard A. Levin (1985) suspects that something disturbing is at work under the surface of the happy romance in Much Ado about Nothing and attempts to uncover the negative aspects of character in the drama. Levin is drawn to the play's principal plotters, Don Pedro and Don John, as well as to Claudio's inexplicably bad behavior and Benedick's moral uncertainty. The critic also comments on Leonato's eagerness to shift all blame in the drama onto Don John, thereby procuring a perfunctory and far from seamless happy ending.
Since its first performance near the end of the sixteenth century, Much Ado about Nothing has enjoyed a nearly uninterrupted reputation as one of Shakespeare's most popular dramas on the stage. The play continues to be staged with relative frequency, and several major productions of Much Ado about Nothing in the early years of the twenty-first century attest to its continuing appeal. Sarah Hemming (2002) reviews Gregory Doran's Royal Shakespeare Company staging of Much Ado about Nothing, which evoked a brooding, honor-bound, and masculine world dominated by the ethos of the mafia crime organization. Hemming contends that Doran's interpretation was unable to adequately link the dark and comic aspects of Shakespeare's drama. Patrick Carnegy (2002) offers a more positive review of Doran's dark vision of Much Ado about Nothing, suggesting that the director crafted a delicate balance between the drama's urbane comedy and sinister undertones. Also reviewing Doran's production, Russell Jackson (2003) admires the director's handling of the drama's bleaker moments, in which he “staged the unhappiest scenes of the play forcefully but without melodrama.” In the United States, Mark Lamos directed a much different staging of Much Ado about Nothing for the Shakespeare Theatre in Washington, D.C. Gabriella Boston (2002) comments on Lamos's charming fulfillment of Shakespeare's work, here set at the height of the Jazz Age, noting that the production underscored the play's comic rather than its menacing elements. Freddi Lipstein's (2003), however, gives a less favorable review of Lamos's staging, noting that the director relied on low comedy to carry the play. Martha Tuck Rozett (2003) reviews director Daniela Varon's Shakespeare and Company production of Much Ado about Nothing staged at the Founders' Theater in Lenox, Massachusetts. Rozett praises Varon's fine realization of the play's festive qualities and comic virtuosity.
Much Ado about Nothing is an immensely entertaining comedy that confronts a wide range of issues, including themes of deception and social responsibility. In his overview of Much Ado about Nothing, G. K. Hunter (see Further Reading) describes the drama as a tragicomedy concerned with the themes of self-deception, self-dramatization, self-love, and self-awareness. Michael Taylor (see Further Reading) explores the conflict between individualism and social responsibility depicted in Much Ado about Nothing, with particular regard to the figures of Don John, Claudio, Beatrice, and Benedick. In his 1982 study, Philip Traci examines the motif of meddling in the affairs of others, particularly with respect to the romantic relationship between Beatrice and Benedick. Traci suggests that the play can be seen as either Shakespeare's happiest comedy or one of his most cynical, depending on the view one holds of the relative merits of intervention and Providence. Morriss Henry Partee (1992) probes the thematic conflicts of Much Ado about Nothing by exploring the play's structural tensions between comedy and tragedy. In addition, Partee examines the function of the Beatrice-Benedick subplot as a device that steers the story away from its more disturbing concerns—including adultery, illegitimacy, and sexual transgression—in order to highlight the play's themes of reconciliation, joy, and matrimony.