Illustration of Hero wearing a mask

Much Ado About Nothing

by William Shakespeare

Start Free Trial

Charles T. Prouty (essay date 1950)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

SOURCE: Prouty, Charles T. “The Play.” In The Sources of Much Ado about Nothing: A Critical Study, pp. 33-64. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1950.

[In the following excerpt, Prouty investigates the sixteenth-century literary sources for the characters in Much Ado about Nothing.]

At first glance there seems to be no connection between the two plots [of Much Ado About Nothing] except for the appearance of Hero and Claudio as agents in the tricking of Benedick and Beatrice, and it has been this seeming lack of integration which has been considered a weakness of the play or has led to the suggestion that the quarreling lovers were put in to liven up a rather somber story. If we keep in mind the careful manipulation of plot which has been demonstrated in connection with Dogberry, it should be reasonable to assume that there is some design in the rest of the play. One may object that if there were any such design it should be apparent and should have been noted long ago. As a general premise such an objection is not one to be tossed aside lightly, but in this case there does seem to be an acceptable explanation. Briefly, the reason why the design has not been perceived is that the true nature of Claudio and Hero and their relationship has been misunderstood. Perhaps the truth might be gleaned from a careful reading of the play, but the reader would need to be well versed in the marriage ways of the Elizabethans and well endowed with critical perception. Certainly many who have written about the play have had the requisite knowledge, but they have been misled by their own inclination to identify Hero and Claudio as romantic literary lovers. Such a view is perhaps understandable. Benedick, for example, talks as though Claudio were a conventional lover and endows him with speeches and behavior which the audience never hears or sees. But such tirades are a part of Benedick's humor as an enemy of love and are not necessarily true. A comparison of both Hero and Claudio with their prototypes in the sources will show that these two are not fashioned from the usual literary pattern.

In all those versions wherein the lovers are given any extensive treatment, the hero is a conventionalized lover. [In one source Shakespeare may have used in composing Much Ado About Nothing, Belleforest's Le Troisième Tome des Histories Extraites des oeuvres Italiennes de Bandel, Histoire XVIII (1569)], Timbreo walks before Fenicia's house to gaze upon her beauty and feed the fire of love. He sends letters and embassies. … Belleforest develops the character still further, describing the inception of love through the familiar figure of beauty's blaze entering the eye and traveling to the heart. We are given the full text of a typical love letter and that of a love poem. The entire subject is argued in wearisome detail by Fénicie and her nurse. With Beverley and Whetstone the lovers become the archetypes of conventional Renaissance lovers. Their love sickness is of a unity with that suffered by numberless victims of Cupid's arrow from the Songes and Sonettes through the poetry and fiction of the century. Their secret messages, their clandestine meetings, their happiness, their sorrows, their reconciliation, their love language, the tropes, which describe them are in themselves echoes and are in turn echoed in countless other tales of romantic love. Orlando is of the same pattern, even though he does not measure up to Rosalind's high standard of the necessary marks of a lover.

A lean cheek, which you have not; a blue eye and sunken, which you have not; an unquestionable spirit, which you have not; a beard neglected, which you have not. But I pardon you for that, for simply your having in beard is a younger brother's revenue. Then your hose should be ungarter'd, your bonnet unbanded, your sleeve unbutton'd, your shoe untied, and everything about you demonstrating a careless desolation.1

Nevertheless Orlando does very well. He mars the bark of trees by scratching out love songs on them; he adorns other trees with manuscripts of very bad poetry; he loves so that “neither rhyme nor reason can express how much,” and he has no desire to be cured of his passion. Of a somewhat more mature nature is Orsino, but he too is a lover who lyrically apostrophizes the “Spirit of Love” and sadly puns on Curio's simple phrase, “The hart.”

Of such simples was a good Elizabethan literary lover compounded, but Claudio, the favorite of Don Pedro, is made of other stuff. Unlike Ariodant who, overcome by the thought of Genevra's falseness, seeks only solitude and death, Claudio seeks the most cruel vengeance in a public defamation of his bride-to-be before the very altar where they were to be married. Timbreo sought no such vengeance; he sent word by an intermediary telling what he had seen and advising Fenecia to marry her lover, for he (Timbreo) would have no further dealings with her. Ariodant was so faithful a lover that in spite of his belief in Genevra's dishonesty, he returned to fight against his own brother in her behalf. Claudio, on the other hand, refrains from a duel with the aggrieved Leonato because of his soldierly scruples about fighting a less worthy and unequal adversary. The only suggestion of sympathy for the sorrowing family is that briefly expressed by Pedro. This same callousness is intensified when, following the departure of Leonato and his brother, Benedick appears. He is greeted with joy because Claudio and the duke wish to jest with him.

Thus it is easy to understand why there is general critical agreement in regarding Claudio as an unpleasant young man who behaves very badly. According to the standards of romantic love Claudio deserves the title of “cad” or “bounder,” but unfortunately for those who wish to hurl opprobrium upon him, the plain fact is that Claudio is not a romantic lover and cannot therefore be judged by the artificial standards of literary convention. For example, how does Claudio fall in love? He tells Pedro

                                                                                                                                  O my lord,
When you went onward on this ended action,
I looked upon her with a soldier's eye,
That liked, but had a rougher task in hand
Than to drive liking to the name of love;
But now I am returned, and that war-thoughts
Have left their places vacant, in their rooms
Come thronging soft and delicate desires,
All prompting me how fair young Hero is,
Saying I liked her ere I went to wars.(2)

The verb describing the young man's feeling is significantly “like” not “love.” Indeed, in his own words Claudio differentiates between “liking” and “the name of love.” Cupid's dart has not struck Claudio, nor has the blaze of beauty ignited the usual furious flames.

The first indication of his interest in Hero is a question to Benedick directly the company have departed and left these two alone in the first scene of the play.

Benedick, didst thou note the daughter of Signior Leonato?
I noted her not, but I looked on her.
Is she not a modest young lady?(3)

Benedick, refusing a straight answer, is importuned: “No, I pray thee speak in sober judgment”; and “Thou thinkest I am in sport. I pray thee tell me truly how thou likest her.”4 Neither Orlando nor Romeo asks other people what they think of Rosalind or Juliet; these lovers know that they have fallen desperately in love. Orlando is struck dumb and cannot even say “I thank you” to “heavenly Rosalind” who has given him the chain from about her neck. Romeo is more loquacious; indeed, his first vision of Juliet is followed almost at once by

O, she doth teach the torches to burn bright!
It seems she hangs upon the cheek of night
Like a rich jewel in an Ethiop's ear—
Beauty too rich for use, for earth too dear!
So shows a snowy dove trooping with crows
As yonder lady o'er her fellows shows.
The measure done, I'll watch her place of stand
And, touching hers, make blessed my rude hand.
Did my heart love till now? Forswear it, sight!
For I ne'er saw true beauty till this night.(5)

Whatever may be our view of Claudio, it is certain that he is no lover in the sense that these two are. Moreover he is not impetuous. Benedick reveals the secret to Pedro:

… he is in love. With who? Now that is your Grace's part. Mark how short his answer is: with Hero, Leonato's short daughter.
If this were so, so were it uttered.
Like the old tale, my lord: “It is not so, nor 'twas not so; but indeed, God forbid it should be so.”
If my passion change not shortly, God forbid it should be otherwise.
Amen, if you love her; for the lady is very well worthy.
You speak this to fetch me in, my lord.(6)

It is perhaps unnecessary to point out that romantic lovers do not think or speak of being “fetched in,” nor does it ever enter their minds that their passions may change. This cautious streak in Claudio is still evident when, at the conclusion of his private talk with his patron, he remarks,

But lest my liking might too sudden seem,
I would have salved it with a longer treatise.(7)

Naturally he is cautious. As a young favorite of the duke contemplating matrimony he has many things to think on, if he is to make a proper alliance. As soon as Benedick leaves them, Claudio opens a serious discussion with Pedro. “My liege, your Highness now may do me good.”8 In other words, he seeks Pedro's assistance in the marriage, but first there is a most important point that needs to be ascertained before Claudio asks the prince to proceed in his behalf. Unlike Romeo or Orlando, Claudio is a careful suitor with an interest in finances; he inquires, “Hath Leonato any son, my lord?” Don Pedro, also a realist, readily understands, as his answer demonstrates, “No child but Hero; she's his only heir.”9 To this is appended the query, “Dost thou affect her, Claudio?” Pedro does not talk of love, for this is not a love match in the romantic sense. Obviously Claudio likes the girl, as he then proceeds to explain in the lines quoted above and that is all to the good; but what Claudio is really interested in is a good and suitable marriage.

The propriety of the match as Shakespeare presents it is in contrast with the situation in the earlier versions. Shakespeare's Leonato is governor of Messina; not so in [in Matteo Bandello's La Prima Parte de la Novelle (1554) or] Belleforest, where the inferior social position of the heroine is advanced as the real reason for Timbreo's letter of rejection. Claudio's social position is, of course, identical with that of Timbreo but is unlike that of Ariodant who is but a knight aspiring for the daughter of a king.10 Again Shakespeare has altered, and the changes have a definite part in his scheme of things. The elevation of Leonato from the status of mere gentleman to the governorship of Messina has not, I think, been noted as a fact of any importance or significance, but when a favorite of the prince decides to marry he must not choose beneath his station. Margaret of Fressingfield may by sheer virtue ascend from her rustic dairy to share the eminence of her husband, the earl of Lincoln; but in the real world such marriages were honored more in the breach than the observance.

Although deception is one of the themes of his play, Shakespeare did not try to deceive his audience into thinking that Claudio was a romantic lover. The pattern was clear enough, and if the words of the young man were not enough, the matter was further clarified when the prince offered to act in Claudio's behalf. For a later age, particularly one devoted to the premise that true love conquers all, levels all barriers, leads to joyous matrimony and wedded bliss, the facts that have been adduced have little meaning. But such an age should remember that William Shakespeare himself gave evidence in the legal proceedings instituted by Stephen Belott against his father-in-law, Christopher Mountjoy, who had broken his promise to give a marriage portion of £60 and to make a will leaving £200 to his daughter, Belott's wife. Shakespeare was called upon not only because he had been living in Mountjoy's house at the time when the apprentice married his master's daughter but because he helped to arrange the marriage. Urged on by Mistress Mountjoy, Shakespeare persuaded Belott to the fatal step.11

Nor should we forget George Chapman's part in the complicated marital affairs of Agnes Howe, the young heiress. Thanks to Professor Sisson's discoveries12 we now know that this eminent dramatist abandoned his usual vein and turned to the writing of a domestic drama dealing with the machinations of John Howe to arrange for his daughter a marriage that would be profitable to him. Three principal suitors were betrothed to the girl and from them, and a number of others, the father profited as best he could. Professor Sisson's reconstruction of this lost play, The Old Joiner of Aldgate, gives us a realistic account of a most complicated mariage de convenance.

But we should not conclude that the custom was limited to London tradesmen such as Mountjoy and Howe; in all classes of society love was a very minor consideration in arranging marriages. For example, Mr. John Stanhope of Harrington in a letter to Sir Christopher Hatton discusses marriage plans for his daughter:

… after two or three days' rest, I took my daughter with me to my brother's house; where leaving her, I came to Carlisle to finish in some sort or other with my Lord Scrope our former agreement touching the marriage of our children, whom I find, as ever, so still desirous to proceed according to our first intent; and therefore have agreed to meet his Lordship again a month hence, in a progress which he intendeth into Lancashire, where the young couples may see one another, and after a little acquaintance, may resolve accordingly.13

Here we see two Elizabethan fathers arranging a proper marriage for their children who have not as yet seen one another. Claudio has at least seen Hero, but he has not spoken with her or even written her a letter. A very proper young man, he is proceeding through the proper channels. Obviously he must have the prince's permission, and if he is fortunate the prince may act in his behalf, or, as he says, “My liege, your Highness now may do me good.” This then explains why Shakespeare has Pedro tell Hero of Claudio's affection and arrange the marriage with Leonato.

In Bandello and Belleforest, Timbreo employs a friend to make the necessary arrangements, as is quite proper; but Shakespeare, by transferring this office to Pedro, puts the marriage on quite another basis. Now the alliance is one blessed by royal authority, and Hero's alleged misconduct becomes a very serious matter of which Don John makes the most that he may. When he appears to make the accusation against Hero, the villain addresses himself to his brother because of the prince's share in arranging the match. Claudio may hear what is to be said since it concerns him, and Don John continues: “You may think I love you not; let that appear hereafter, and aim better at me by that I now will manifest. For my brother (I think he holds you well and in dearness of heart) hath holpe to effect your ensuing marriage: surely suit ill spent and labor ill bestowed.”14 Offered proof of the charge both Claudio and Pedro are prepared for violent action. The former resolves “in the congregation where I should wed, there will I shame her,”15 while the prince, recognizing his responsibility, says, “And as I wooed for thee to obtain her, I will join with thee to disgrace her.”16 And later Pedro's bitter words reveal his revulsion and the blow to his own pride:

                                                                      What should I speak?
I stand dishonored that have gone about
To link my dear friend to a common stale.(17)

Viewed as a mariage de convenance the projected alliance and its breach demand another standard of judgment than that of romantic love. The public denunciation of Hero is an unpleasant affair, but Pedro and Claudio are more than justified, since they accept for truth the evidence which they have seen. Claudio likes Hero in the same way that Mr. Stanhope and Lord Scrope hoped their children would like one another, but Claudio is not madly in love with his bride-to-be. He has hoped for, and the prince has arranged, a suitable match. If Hero has a clandestine lover she has affronted all the proprieties. Unchastity is but one of her sins, the others being a deliberate flaunting of the arrangements of her father and Pedro and an attempt to pass herself off to her proud young husband as undamaged merchandise. In the eyes of the aggrieved she was not only a wanton but an intentional perpetrator of fraud.

Even the most cursory examination of the available evidence emphasizes the businesslike attitude toward marriage in Shakespeare's England. In the proceedings of the Court of Requests, for example, is listed a variety of cases concerning every aspect of marriage arrangements. To cite but a few, these cases comprise a “Reward for bringing about a marriage,” “Gifts promised for negotiating a marriage,” “Expenses of courting defendant's niece, the engagement being broken off,” “‘Gifts and benefits’ promised by defendants on plaintiff's marriage with their daughter,” “Lands … comprised in a marriage settlement,” “Breach of promise of marriage,” and “Money delivered to second defendant under promise of marrying plaintiff.”18 While the poets sang of love, the real world went about its business of dealing practically with the divine passion. A rejected suitor with a literary flair bemoaned his loss in appropriate verse; his less talented and more forthright brother hied himself to the courts and sued for the “Recovery of gloves, rings, and other presents, made in anticipation of a marriage which was broken off.”19

The chief thing that could affect contracted marriages, aside from occasional insubordination, was a doubt of legality or any indication of fraud, and there were suits for “Money paid in respect of a marriage which proved illegal.”20 Since business was business, it was, understandably enough, to the interest of fathers and go-betweens to keep a sharp eye out for “pretended” or secret marriages. A secret marriage, therefore, between the earl of Leicester and Lettice, countess of Essex, most emphatically did not satisfy the bride's father. He knew too well the nature of his new son-in-law to be content with anything save a public ceremony which he could witness, and such a second wedding was celebrated.21

Against such a background the businesslike, callous, and even vengeful spirit of both Claudio and Don Pedro becomes understandable. A suitable marriage having been arranged, it now seems to them that Hero would trick them if she could, and so her death is not a matter of regret but an instance of wickedness receiving its just reward. They are, of course, repentant when Hero is exonerated, and Claudio is willing to do any penance which Leonato may impose. Even here the new marriage is presented in the same light as the old, for Leonato asks that Claudio marry his brother's daughter and “give her the right you should have given her cousin.”22 The right is, of course, a suitable husband, but there are the usual considerations. The new bride is described by Leonato as “almost the copy of my child that's dead,” and he adds, significantly, “and she alone is heir to both of us.”23 Claudio's penance is both light and well paid.

It will be remembered that just such a general tone of Realpolitik was evident in Bandello. Shakespeare does not make Claudio the straightforward sensualist that was Timbreo, nor does he make Leonato a sagacious father trying to assure his daughter of some or any marriage, even though she must hide in the country for a couple of years so as to deceive potential suitors. Rather the realism of the matter is shown by Shakespeare in the essential mariage de convenance situation. Of this there is no hint in Bandello or in any of the other versions. In Bandello Timbreo is a frank sensualist forced into marriage by his desires. Elsewhere the hero is purely conventional, a romantic lover. Actually such alteration does not require any change in the character of the heroine as she appears in Bandello and Belleforest. Here she is the well-brought-up young girl, the dutiful daughter who knows what deceivers men are and how to behave herself. On the other hand, the heroine in the Ariosto descent is quite a different character. She is impetuous, romantic, and wilful, and Hero does represent a great alteration from such a pattern. Since Shakespeare has changed the fundamental relationship from one of convention to a reality, it seems fruitless to attempt any direct explanation of Hero's origins. She is what she is because of the situation in which she plays a principal part.

The influence of this last fact is easily demonstrable. Whereas Fenicia rejects all letters, messages, gifts, and embassies, Hero is not faced with such trials which are necessary temptations for Fenicia whose suitor is the ardent Don Timbreo; but Claudio, the soul of propriety, will make no such furtive assaults on Hero's virtue. Similarly there is no need for Hero to discuss her suitor as does Belleforest's heroine. Fénicie, in tiresome paragraphs, is forced to expound the whole duty of a virtuous daughter, but this she does as a specific reaction to the immoral suggestions of her nurse. Hero, not being wooed by such a lover and fortunately being without the attendance of such a confidante, has no need to orate. She is involved in quite a different situation: a mariage de convenance wherein she is very simply the dutiful daughter. Unlike Juliet who already has a husband and cannot marry Paris, Hero, perfectly content with her father's choice, does not object to the match, with the result that there is no conflict, no action except that which arises from the deception.

This lack of action clarifies many things, chief among them, Hero's taciturnity. She has remarkably few lines except those connected with the Benedick-Beatrice plot. During the whole first act, although she is on stage for a considerable time, she has but one line, a mere tag, “My cousin means Signior Benedick of Padua.”24 She is equally reticent during and after her betrothal. Leonato announces the match, but it is Beatrice who speaks and her words are an admonishment: “Speak cousin; or if you cannot, stop his mouth with a kiss and let him not speak neither.”25 From this we may deduce a bit of stage business involving a maidenly offering of her lips; but the rest is silence, for no words pass those lips that we can hear, although Hero is supposed to be whispering words of love in Claudio's ear. Perhaps modesty may be the rein upon her tongue, but really there is no need for her to say anything. She has not hitherto talked with Claudio nor has she been wooed by him. As Beatrice remarks, “It is my cousin's duty to make curtsy and say, ‘Father, as it please you’; but yet for all that, cousin, let him be a handsome fellow, or else make another curtsy and say, ‘Father, as it please me.’”26 Presumably Claudio is a handsome fellow, and Hero does her duty, but it were the height of folly to imagine her passionately in love as was Juliet. She makes but one reference to her bridegroom on the morning of her wedding when she casually observes, “These gloves the Count sent me, they are an excellent perfume.”27 Maidenly reticence can hardly be offered as an excuse for Hero's failure to talk about her future husband. The conversation which precedes her glove reference is neither maidenly nor modest. No, the plain fact of the matter is that Hero is not emotionally involved; she is an obedient and dutiful daughter, just such a daughter as old Capulet and many another Renaissance father would have wished to have.

Such a character is not too frequent a performer on the stage because, as we have noted, there can arise no action from such passiveness. However, there is an excellent and more loquacious member of the genre in Eastward Ho. Mildred, the dutiful daughter of the goldsmith Touchstone, is presented as a contrast to her willful and socially ambitious sister Gertrude who scorns their father's counsel and marries the bankrupt Sir Petronel Flash. Without any warning Touchstone announces to Mildred that she is to marry his apprentice, Golding. In words that certainly warmed the heart of every father in the audience, she replies: “Sir, I am all yours; your body gave me life; your care and love, happiness of life; let your virtue still direct it, for to your wisdom I wholly dispose myself.”28 As is to be expected, happiness and prosperity are the lot of Mildred and Golding; ruin and disaster the just reward of proud Gertrude and her mountebank knight. Very little is said about Mildred, for there is nothing dramatic in her situation; the main action focuses on Gertrude and Petronel.

Similarly there is little or no action implicit in the affairs of Claudio and Hero, and were it not for the deception there could be no play. In the presentation of this one source of action Shakespeare has altered his original. Only in Ariosto and the versions derived from him is there a maid dressed in her mistress's robes, and there we have a very clear explanation of the disguise. There is no such clarity in Much Ado. Margaret's part in the plot is never explained. All we ever hear by way of explanation is Leonato's brief reference:

But Margaret was in some fault for this,
Although against her will, as it appears
In the true course of all the question.(29)

More than this we do not know, and elsewhere there is the same uncertainty. Borachio, first broaching the scheme, advises Don John to tell the prince and Claudio that he (Borachio) is Hero's lover. In the same scene is found the ambiguous reference: “… hear me call Margaret Hero, hear Margaret term me Claudio …”30 In all subsequent accounts of what happened the identity of the lover is unknown and there is no mention of the conversation between the false Hero and her paramour. The prince and Claudio are deceived by their eyes, not their ears, and Borachio's confession gives the same impression: “… how you were brought into the orchard and saw me court Margaret in Hero's garments …”31 But it is such contradiction that leads Professor Dover Wilson to posit an earlier play carelessly revised by Shakespeare. Although such an explanation neatly settles the problem by avoiding it, there really seems to be no need to worry the matter too much. There is no logical explanation, as was pointed out by Lewis Carroll in a letter to Ellen Terry:

But even if Hero might be supposed to be so distracted as not to remember where she had slept the night before, or even whether she had slept anywhere, surely Beatrice has her wits about her! And when an arrangement was made, by which she was to lose, for one night, her twelve-months' bedfellow, is it conceivable that she didn't know where Hero passed the night? Why didn't she reply:

“But good my lord sweet Hero slept not there:
She had another chamber for the nonce.
'Twas sure some counterfeit that did present
Her person at the window, aped her voice,
Her mien, her manners, and hath thus deceived
My good Lord Pedro and this company?”

With all these excellent materials for proving an “alibi” it is incomprehensible that no one should think of it. If only there had been a barrister present, to cross-examine Beatrice!

“Now, ma'am, attend to me, please, and speak up so that the jury can hear you. Where did you sleep last night? Where did Hero sleep? Will you swear that she slept in her own room? Will you swear that you do not know where she slept?” I feel inclined to quote old Mr. Weller and to say to Beatrice at the end of the play (only I'm afraid it isn't etiquette to speak across the footlights):

“Oh, Samivel, Samivel, vy vornt there a halibi?”(32)

There can no more be a cross-examination of Beatrice than there can be a confession by Margaret. All that matters is that Claudio and Pedro think the accusation true and behave as they do in the Temple. The deception per se is not important in Shakespeare's play. The significance is the real matter of importance. Shakespeare is not interested in Margaret as a deceived Dalinda; nor is he concerned with the variety of things that happen to Claudio and Hero before they reach the port of matrimony. In other words, those aspects of the story which appealed to Ariosto, Bandello, and the others are not for Shakespeare; his purpose is quite alien to that of other tellers of this tale. From what we have seen of Claudio and Hero, the significance of the deception is apparent. This is not a love match in the conventional sense; it is a proper marriage which is wrecked as easily as it is arranged, when there is a hint of fraud. The reaction of both the prince and Claudio to Hero's death and their behavior to both Leonato and Benedick are explicable on no other grounds. It is as though Shakespeare were saying to us, “Here is the fashion in the real world where marriage is essentially a business arrangement.” The literary ideal and the reality are at variance, or as Rosalind observes: “Men have died from time to time, and worms have eaten them, but not for love.”33

It may be that, according to modern standards, Shakespeare should have so plotted his play that there could be a ready and easy explanation for Margaret's complicity and her silence, but again I would suggest that neither Shakespeare nor his audience bothered about motivation and logical explanation in the sense that we do. After all, the scene does take place off stage and is reported with a dearth of detail. It is not the subtle trick of a Polynesso; it is merely the source of the only action that can arise in the Hero-Claudio plot. As such it happens, and that is all we need be concerned with. There is no rival; Hero's affections are not engaged; action results from an external event. Viewed as a most necessary cog in the plot the deception should perhaps be acted out and not reported; but aside from the difficulty of representing the disguised Margaret, the reporting is not a fault, for it emphasizes the fact that the scene is external—a mere device which the dramatist uses but does not consider important for its own sake.

Although we have been concerned with the realism of the Hero-Claudio plot, we should not conclude that Much Ado is a satiric or problem comedy. It has been necessary to emphasize the realism of this plot because a failure to do has confused Shakespeare's intent. There is a real difference between the nonserious presentation of a realistic situation and the serious presentation of the same thing, and this play, unlike Measure for Measure or All's Well, is certainly not to be taken as a serious portrayal of unpleasant realism. If we think for a moment of the changes that are rung on the theme of deception, we will realize that the comic spirit has the upper hand. At the end of the opening scene Pedro decides to make use of the night's masking to hide his identity and, pretending to be Claudio, to woo Hero. The next two scenes are concerned with nothing but the overhearing of this. Antonio reports an incorrect version to his brother Leonato, while Borachio has the correct story for Don John. The first scene of Act II has yet more deceiving. Benedick, hiding his identity under a mask, must bear in silence a tongue-lashing from Beatrice. Claudio, pretending to be Benedick, receives from Don John the unpleasant and false information that the prince intends to marry Hero. No sooner is this matter set right and the betrothal of Claudio and Hero performed than Pedro plots the deception of Benedick and Beatrice. Even the Watch are part of the pattern, for they create out of their own misunderstanding that renowned thief “one Deformed.” All this deceiving springs from but a single cause: various people are guilty of eavesdropping. Certainly the prince and Claudio are eavesdroppers when they secretly witness the false assignation, and both Benedick and Beatrice are brought to the altar by their sin of overhearing, or as Hero says:

                                                                                Of this matter
Is little Cupid's crafty arrow made,
That only wounds by hearsay.(34)

Of all this eavesdropping and deceiving there is no hint in the sources; both are original with Shakespeare who uses the theme to achieve his comic purpose.

Thus has Shakespeare adapted the Hero-Claudio story to suit his nonserious treatment of it; but this plot cannot stand by itself as comedy nor as a reflection of contemporary attitudes toward marriage. The comedy is made by Benedick and Beatrice whose love is another aspect of the nonromantic and whose marriage balances that of Claudio and Hero.


As with Claudio and Hero, it is necessary to understand Benedick and Beatrice in contemporary terms if their place in the structure of the play is to be comprehended as part of an organic unity. Here in a strictly literal sense we abandon the sources, for no such characters are there to be found. A moment's reflection, however, may show us that a comparison of Shakespeare with his originals has led us to a point where something like the Benedick-Beatrice plot is an absolute necessity. With the Hero-Claudio affair a mariage de convenance whose only action is based on deception, there must be some sort of counterplot wherein deception is definitely comic. For such a contrast Benedick and Beatrice are admirably suited. But these two have a relevancy to the ideas of the play as well as to its plot. There is reason behind Shakespeare's creation of them, and this we may notice if we expand our study of sources to include previous literary appearances of such characters and the ideas which they propound.

Miss Mary Augusta Scott35 pointed out certain parallels between Benedick and Beatrice on the one hand and Lord Gaspare Pallavicino and the Lady Emilia Pia on the other. The principal likenesses which Miss Scott observes are of a general nature. First, the Italian pair are witty and they speak in dramatic dialogue. Second, there is antagonism between them because Lord Gaspare is essentially antifeminist and as such is teased by the Lady Emilia who defends her sex. When it is suggested that the group define “a gentilwoman of the Palaice so facioned in all perfections, as these Lordes have facioned the perfect Courtier,”36 Lady Emilia expresses the pious hope that her adversary have no part in such a discussion, for he will surely fashion “one that can do nought elles but looke to the kitchin and spinn.”37 Resemblances of this sort there are between Castiglione and Shakespeare, but the frequency of the literary appearances of such characters throughout the century testifies to a widespread convention rather than to direct imitation.

It is likewise something of an oversimplification to regard, as does Mr. D. L. Stevenson, Benedick and Beatrice as participants in the conventional “sex-duel,” “quarreling over the nature of love.”38 Thus these two are viewed as a sort of culmination of “the amorous conflict” which began “in the poetry of Wyatt.”39 Such constant application of a thesis leads to an erroneous interpretation of the love relationship of Hero and Claudio and their function in the play, as well as to the questionable generalization that “Shakespeare's comedies of courtship … resolve a quarrel over the nature of love which had been current in English literature for about four centuries.”40 It is quite true that Benedick and Beatrice have perfectly obvious relations to the tradition of quarreling lovers, but an examination of what these two actually do and say precludes any attempt to make them sophisticated in the sense that the Lord Gaspare and the Lady Emilia are. Similarly there is a world of difference between Berowne and Rosaline, and Benedick and Beatrice, even though there are certain resemblances. The patterns of Elizabethan love behavior cannot be easily separated and analyzed according to strict definition.41 Aside from this, the fact is that Benedick and Beatrice are characters in a play and their function within that framework limits and modifies so that they are something more than symbols of a convention.

Traditional elements are, in part, responsible for the dramatic popularity of Benedick and Beatrice, since the audience recognizes with pleasure that which is familiar, and there is exemplified in these two still another convention which has hitherto escaped notice, although a clue was offered when Miss Potts noted parallels between the persons of Much Ado and characters in The Faerie Queene.42 Of these parallels, the late Professor Tucker Brooke remarked with characteristic irony, “Only a very clever person could have noted them, or could have left it, as Miss Potts does, to some strangely gifted reader to decide what they imply.”43 With an acute awareness of both possible and probable foolhardiness, I venture to suggest that at least one of the likenesses may be said to have apparent significance. There is a definite affinity between Beatrice and Mirabella, who is doomed by Cupid to a penance of two years' duration. She is mounted on “a mangy iade” led by “a lewd foole” and followed by another,

                                                  … who hauing in his hand a whip,
Her therewith yirks, and still when she complaines,
The more he laughes, and does her closely quip,
To see her sore lament, and bite her tender lip.(44)

The purpose of this unhappy wandering through the world is to afford Mirabella the opportunity to redeem herself by saving “so many loues, as she did lose.”45 For Mirabella the quest was difficult, since she had “through her dispiteous pride, whilest loue lackt place” destroyed some “two and twenty.”46 Though of mean parentage, the lady had “wondrous giftes of nature's grace”;47 such beauty was hers that

          The beames whereof did kindle louely fire
In th' harts of many a knight, and many a gentle squire.(48)

But to all her suitors Mirabella was indifferent, and the more she was praised “the more she did all loue despize,” saying,

          She was borne free, not bound to any wight,
And so would euer liue, and loue her owne delight.(49)

Arrogant in the power which her beauty gave her, she

          Did boast her beautie had such soueraine might,
          That with the onely twinckle of her eye,
          She could or saue, or spill, whom she would hight.
What could the Gods doe more, but doe it more aright?(50)

Naturally such effrontery led to heavenly displeasure with the result that Mirabella was brought a captive unto the bar of Cupid's Court where she was examined and sentenced. Her guards on the journey are “Disdaine” who leads the horse and “Scorne” who scourges her.

These same two abstractions are used by Hero in describing her cousin:

But Nature never framed a woman's heart
Of prouder stuff than that of Beatrice.
Disdain and Scorn ride sparkling in her eyes,
Misprising what they look on, and her wit
Values itself so highly that to her
All matter else seems weak. She cannot love,
Nor take no shape nor project of affection,
She is so self-endeared.(51)

Hero's description seems to suit Mirabella quite as well as Beatrice; both misprise and both are self-endeared. Other comments on Beatrice confirm the resemblance. Benedick addresses her as “Lady Disdain.”52 When Pedro observes, “She cannot endure to hear tell of a husband,” Leonato replies, “O, by no means. She mocks all her wooers out of suit.”53 This same theme of obduracy is mentioned again in the scene gulling Benedick; the prince feigns amazement at the news of Beatrice's love: “I would have thought her spirit had been invincible against all assaults of affection.”54

There can be little doubt that these two ladies have a great deal in common, although there are equally obvious differences between them. But should we conclude that Shakespeare is imitating directly from Spenser or that both are imitating a common, nonextant source? The simple answer seems to be that both are writing about the same object—the conventional “Disdainful Woman.” Such a personage appears as a constant in the literature of the period. When, for example, Giletta wished to hide her love from Frizaldo, she adopted just such a conventional attitude. When Rinaldo, quite unaware of her dissembling, “saluted her by the name of his mystresse, very disdainfully and scornefully, or not at all she aunsweared him: On him shee frowned with a curst countenaunce.”55 Not only do the terms “disdain and scorn” appear, there is as well the adjective “curst” which Antonio applies with exactly the same significance. When Leonato advises Beatrice, “By my troth, niece, thou wilt never get thee a husband, if thou be so shrewd of thy tongue,” Antonio adds, “In faith, she's too curst.”56 Here again there is no question of direct influence: both Whetstone and Shakespeare are using the well-established clichés in connection with a stereotype.57 The pattern appears again and again. Colin Clout, like many another, loved a maiden who scorned him, and Rosalind, the widow's daughter of the glen, like Beatrice, Mirabella, and many another, fed her suitor with disdain. The Elizabethan Miscellanies abound with harsh descriptions of disdainful ladies, and the verses of such poets as Turbervile, Gascoigne, and Whetstone frequently upbraid the stony hearts which scorn them.

Although Beatrice may be reasonably classified as a “Disdainful Dame,” she is not identical with Mirabella or any other woman we have noted, and if we are to avoid the dangers of generalization, we must realize her composite nature. In point of fact Benedick's behavior is in some ways closer to that of Mirabella. Whereas we have only the one slight reference to Beatrice's mocking her suitors, Benedick himself boasts of his cruelty to the sex: “But it is certain I am loved of all ladies, only you excepted; and I would I could find in my heart that I had not a hard heart, for truly I love none.”58 When Claudio asks his opinion of Hero, our masculine Disdainer reveals the same attitude. “Do you question me as an honest man should do, for my simple true judgment? or would you have me speak after my custom, as being a professed tyrant to their sex?”59 This avowed custom of cruelty to women, while talked of, is never demonstrated, for none of the many who love Benedick appears in this play. Benedick, too, is really a composite of several conventions brought to life by Shakespeare's genius. Generically he is a disdainer and a quarreling lover, but certainly he is not to be equated with Berowne, that eloquent defender of “the right Promethean fire,” simply because he engages in jesting with a woman for whom he finally admits love. The diversity of the character is pointed further by Miss Potts's notation of parallels between him and Spenser's Braggadochio.60 Beatrice, in the opening scene, jests at his martial exploits; later Pedro observes, “… in the managing of quarrels you may say he is wise, for either he avoids them with great discretion, or undertakes them with a most Christianlike fear.”61 Braggadochio exhibits the same characteristics, but again there is no question of direct indebtedness; instead, Spenser and Shakespeare are both using a familiar stereotype and in describing it they both use familiar tropes.

Another familar idea which appears in The Faerie Queene, The Shepheardes Calendar, and in other poetry and prose works helps to explain the dramatic popularity of Benedick and Beatrice, as well as to emphasize Shakespeare's use of ideas current in his own age which would have an easy and definite appeal for his audience. Here again it is necessary to abandon sources in any strict sense, in favor of study which will reveal something of the background of ideas and behavior patterns familiar to the dramatist and his audience. After the rescue of St. George from the dungeons of Orgoglio, there is a brief interlude when, at Una's request, Prince Arthur tells of his loves and lineage. In youth, the usual time for love to burgeon, Prince Arthur avoided the infection because of the good advice given him by old Timon.

That idle name of loue, and louers life,
          As losse of time, and vertues enimy
          I euer scornd, and ioyd to stirre vp strife,
          In middest of their mournful Tragedy,
          Ay wont to laugh, when them I heard to cry,
          And blow the fire, which them to ashes brent …(62)

Such arrant defiance of Cupid can have but one result as the prince ruefully admits:

          Nothing is sure, that growes on earthly ground:
          And who most trustes in arme of fleshly might,
          And boasts, in beauties chaine not to be bound,
          Doth soonest fall in disauentrous fight,
And yeeldes his caytiue neck to victours most despight.(63)

The blind god has triumphed over the rebel

Whose prouder vaunt that proud auenging boy
Did soone pluck downe, and curbd my libertie.(64)

Equally defiant is Benedick as we are told by Beatrice who, learning that he has returned safely from the wars, defines him as rebel against Cupid. “He set up his bills here in Messina and challenged Cupid at the flight; and my uncle's fool, reading the challenge subscribed for Cupid and challenged him at the burbolt.”65 Later in the play when both Beatrice and Benedick have been deceived, Pedro refers to Benedick's opposition to the god of Love. “He hath twice or thrice cut Cupid's bowstring, and the little hangman dare not shoot at him.”66 The prince is here speaking in ironic vein because he and Claudio feel certain that they have succeeded in their deception, but the irony and humor are perfectly obvious to the audience for whom this aspect of Benedick's character has already been well established. The parallels with Prince Arthur may, however, be observed in further details. Benedick, like the prince, scorns “that idle name of love.” When Claudio first asks an opinion on Hero, Benedick must at once attack conventional love language. “But speak you this with a sad brow? or do you play the flouting jack, to tell us Cupid is a good hare-finder, and Vulcan a rare carpenter?”67 Similarly Benedick joys “to stirre up strife” for lovers. It is with evident pleasure that he teases Claudio with the quip, “the Prince hath got your Hero.”68 Using the willow, the conventional symbol of the forsaken lover, the disdainer exploits the situation to the full.

It is this use by Benedick of conventional literary love jargon in speaking with or about Claudio that has led to misunderstanding of this particular character. As we have observed, Claudio does not qualify as a romantic, even though Benedick talks as if he were, practically putting the clichés in his mouth. As Cupid's foe and a scorner of “the idle name of love,” Benedick is always ready to ridicule the subject whether he has just cause or no. All he needs is the suggestion of fashionable love talk to send him into a tirade wherein he attacks such jargon. Claudio mentions his liking for Hero, and Benedick is off; Pedro observes that someday he will see Benedick look pale with love and the accused replies as we know he will. In just such a vein is Benedick's soliloquy which immediately precedes his deception. Ranting on at a great rate against love and Claudio as a lover, Benedick's words are wondrously ironic in view of what is to happen. Like Prince Arthur's, “his prouder vaunt that proud auenging boy [will] soone plucke downe.” This is the stuff of comedy and should be understood in this as well as in its conventional sense.

It may, I think, be demonstrated that an Elizabethan audience would, early in the course of the play, realize what is going to happen to Benedick and Beatrice. As rebels against love their fate is sure and certain; they are destined to meet before the altar at the conclusion of the play. Whereas Mirabella is forced by Cupid to do penance, the usual rebel was treated as was Prince Arthur. Mirabella is punished because of her discourtesy and her story is therefore part of Book VI. The more usual pattern is exemplified by Arthur's fate. That Cupid's vengeance on the prince was in the familiar vein may be ascertained by reference to practically any of the poets of the time. In the March eclogue of The Shepheardes Calendar, Thomalin boasts how he discovered Cupid hiding in a bush and shot him with a burbolt. In revenge the god has shot him in the heel and now his wound festers sore. The preface to the eclogue makes it clear, though Thomalin's words are plain enough, that “… in the person of Thomalin is meant some secrete freend, who scorned Loue and his knights so long, till at length him self was entangled, and vnwares wounded with the dart of some beautiful regard, which is Cupides arrowe.”69 Such is also the explanation advanced by Dan Bartholmew of Bathe for his unhappy love affair:

I thinke the goddesse of revenge devysde,
So to be wreackt on my rebelling will,
Bycause I had in youthfull yeares dispysde,
To taste the baytes, which tyste my fancie still.(70)

There are constant references to this stereotype in practically all poets of the period. George Whetstone, for example, thus prefaces one set of his poems: “The contemptuous louer finding no grace where hee faithfully fauoreth, acknowledgeth his former scorne, vsed toward loue, to be the onely cause of his miseries.”71 Elsewhere Whetstone tells the sad story of “The hap, and hard fortune of a careless louer” who summoned by Cupid to yield to Beauty refused and was subsequently brought a captive to “Beauties barre.”72 A long and horrendous sentence is pronounced whereby the prisoner is forced to endure unrequited love.73

Although Benedick has been “an obstinate heretic in the despite of Beauty,”74 he is not condemned to suffer the pangs of unrequited love. Instead he is matched with another offender against the laws of love. A sentimental view may incline us to envision the married state of these two as one of unalloyed bliss, since “they really did love one another all the time.” Be that as it may, the conclusion of the play shows the lovers, even in the midst of capitulation, still struggling to maintain the dignity of their former positions, and points, at the least, to a lively union. Benedick agrees to matrimony and seeks to gain the last word. “Come, I will have thee, but, by this hand, I take thee for pity.”75 Beatrice accepts, caustic as ever, “I would not deny you; but by this good day, I yield upon great persuasion, and partly to save your life, for I was told you were in a consumption,”76 and gets, momentarily, the last word. An Elizabethan audience would not, I think, have taken the sentimental view. Aware of the conventions and delighting in their perception of the situation and its inevitable result, they would take it for the wondrous comedy that it is.

The comedy, of course, arises from many elements, but always there is Shakespeare's hand at work blending conventions and creating character. Benedick and Beatrice are not merely rebels against love and its language; they are, as well, juxtaposed; so that their rebellion may find a tangible enemy in each other. Each represents to the other that which each scorns, and therein lie the complexity of their characters and the source of humor. Actually their rebellion is not to be taken too seriously. As we have seen, Benedick refers to his “custom, as being a professed tyrant to their sex,” but at once he contrasts an opinion delivered on this basis with “my simple true judgment.”77 The assumed pose of this is consonant with Beatrice's “I was born to speak all mirth and no matter,” or, “then there was a star danced, and under that was I born.”78 They both have light hearts and are determined to keep “on the windy side of Care,”79 but neither will ever be a conventional literary lover, for in these two Shakespeare presents an attitude and a behavior pattern as real as that shown by Claudio and Hero.

In the well-known sonnet, “Loving in truth, and fain in verse my love to show,” Sir Philip Sidney expresses seriously a critical view of conventional jargon which is similar to the nonserious objections of Benedick and Beatrice to the same thing. Fine inventions sought out in the works of other men are not the means whereby he may express his love for Stella. Benedick, attempting a poem in praise of Beatrice, is equally unable to employ the trite; but whereas Sidney concludes with, “Fool, said my muse to me, look in thy heart and write,”80 Benedick concludes with the acceptance of fact, “I cannot woo in festival terms.” Sidney seeks a genuine expression of emotion and of course achieves it; Benedick is best described as a realist, or, as he says, “I do much wonder that one man, seeing how much another man is a fool when he dedicates his behaviors to love, will, after he hath laughed at such shallow follies in others, become the argument of his own scorn by falling in love. …”81

Both Sidney and Shakespeare reacted to the spate of love poetry utterly removed from reality, and such reaction was a perfectly normal development in the closing years of the century. A point of satiety, particularly in the imagery of amorous verse had been reached, so that new developments took the form of Donne's metaphysical style or Jonson's classicism. If we are to judge by Shakespeare's creation of Benedick and Beatrice, a new attitude came into being along with a new manner of expression. Exactly as Claudio and Hero are examples of the usual type of marriage as contrasted with the literary, so Benedick and Beatrice are another pair of realists sick to death of the jargon and extravagant behavior demanded by the fashionable code and so exhaustively exemplified, as we have seen, by such lovers as Beverley's Ariodant and Genevra. In Benedick and Beatrice, Shakespeare's tone is close to Raleigh's

If all the world and love were young,
And truth in every shepherd's tongue,
These pretty pleasures might me move
To live with thee and be thy love.(82)

Like the nymph who observes quite sagely that “flowers do fade” and that “Time drives the flocks from field to fold,” Beatrice is a realistic commentator:

… wooing, wedding, and repenting is as a Scotch jig, a measure, and a cinque-pace: the first suit is hot and hasty like a Scotch jig (and full as fantastical); the wedding mannerly modest (as a measure), full of state and ancientry; and then comes Repentance and with his bad legs falls into the cinque-pace faster and faster, till he sink into his grave.83

That Beatrice is not merely a shrew hating all men but is wise and observant is proved by Leonato's comment on the foregoing speech: “Cousin, you apprehend passing shrewdly,”84 or, as Beatrice says in reply, “I have a good eye, uncle; I can see a church by daylight.”85

Benedick likewise “sees” quite clearly that love is not what it is in books. When Claudio says that Hero is the sweetest lady he ever looked on, Benedick replies, “I can see yet without spectacles and I see no such matter …”86 Later, reflecting on the folly of love, he again uses the same figure: “May I be so converted and see with these eyes? I cannot tell; I think not. I will not be sworn but love may transform me to an oyster, but I'll take my oath on it, till he have made an oyster of me he shall never make me such a fool.”87 Like Beatrice, Benedick wishes to avoid the folly which they both see in the trite and conventional.


  1. As You Like It, III, ii, 392-403.

  2. Much Ado, I, i, 298-307. Of this passage Hazlitt (Characters of Shakespear's Plays [London, 1884], p. 210) observed that it was “as pleasing an image of the entrance of love into a youthful bosom as can well be imagined.” Similar differentiation between “love” and “like” is found in Sidney's sonnet, “Not at the first sight, nor with a dribbed shot” (Hebel and Hudson, Poetry of the English Renaissance [New York, 1938], p. 106), where is found the line, “I saw and liked; I liked but loved not.”

  3. Much Ado, I, i, 164-166.

  4. Ibid., I, i, 171, 180.

  5. Romeo and Juliet, I, v, 46-55. Compare this with Claudio's use of a jewel figure, Much Ado, I, i, 181-182.

  6. Much Ado, I, i, 214-225.

  7. Ibid., I, i, 316-317.

  8. Ibid., I, i, 292.

  9. Ibid., I, i, 296-299. In describing his feigned niece to the repentant Claudio, Leonato (V, i, 297-299) stresses this same point as a recommendation for this new bride:

                                            My brother hath a daughter,
    Almost the copy of my child that's dead,
    And she alone is heir to both of us.
  10. Whereas Beverley has both lovers reflect on the disparity of their social positions as a possible impediment, Sir John Harington finds a “good morall observation” in “the choise of Geneura, who being a great Ladie by birth, yet chose rather a gallant faire conditioned gentleman then a great Duke” (Orlando Furioso, p. 39). To an Elizabethan the question of social position was a very real consideration in marriage.

  11. The depositions from the Court of Requests proceeding Bellot vs. Mountjoy were first printed by C. W. Wallace, Shakespeare and His London Associates, Nebraska University Studies, Vol. X (1910). The relevant material is easily available in Sir Edmund Chambers, William Shakespeare (2 vols., Oxford, 1930), II, 90-95.

  12. C. J. Sisson, “The Old Joiner of Aldgate by Chapman,” Lost Plays of Shakespeare's Age (Cambridge, 1936), pp. 12-79.

  13. Sir Harris Nicolas, Memoirs of the Life and Times of Sir Christopher Hatton (London, 1847), p. 78.

  14. Much Ado, III, ii, 97-103.

  15. Ibid., III, ii, 127-129.

  16. Ibid., III, ii, 129-130.

  17. Ibid., IV, i, 64-66.

  18. In the order given the relevant cases are Court of Requests: XXX/43; XCVII/5; CIX/38; LXXVIII/104; XLIV/19; XXXI/37; CXV/3.

  19. Requests, LXV/55.

  20. Requests, XCIV/23.

  21. William Camden, The History of … Elizabeth (London, 1675), pp. 217-218.

  22. Much Ado, V, i, 300.

  23. Ibid., V, i, 297-298.

  24. Ibid., I, i, 36.

  25. Ibid., II, i, 321-323.

  26. Ibid., II, i, 55-59.

  27. Ibid., III, iv, 62-63.

  28. The Comedies of George Chapman, ed. Thomas Marc Parrott (London, 1914), p. 473, ll. 168-170.

  29. V, iv, 4-6.

  30. Ibid., II, ii, 44-45.

  31. Ibid., V, i, 243-245.

  32. Quoted by Ellen Terry in The Story of My Life (London, 1908), p. 358.

  33. As You Like It, IV, i, 106-108.

  34. Much Ado, III, i, 21-23.

  35. The Book of the Courtyer: A Possible Source of Benedick and Beatrice,” PMLA, pp. 475-502.

  36. The Book of the Courtier, ed. Walter Raleigh, p. 206.

  37. Ibid.

  38. The Love-Game Comedy, p. 212.

  39. Ibid., p. 231.

  40. Ibid., p. 223.

  41. Not only the work of Mr. C. S. Lewis on the various aspects of love in The Faerie Queene (The Allegory of Love), but the encyclopedic knowledge of the subject found in T. F. Crane's Italian Social Customs of the Sixteenth Century testify to the impossibility of any simple generalizations as to the nature of love behavior patterns. The whole subject is one needing thorough study.

  42. Abbie Findlay Potts, “Spenserian ‘Courtesy’ and ‘Temperance’ in Shakespeare's Much Ado About Nothing,Shakespeare Association Bulletin, XVII (1942), 103-111, 126-133.

  43. The Year's Work in English Studies, XXIII (1942), 110.

  44. The Poetical Works of Edmund Spenser, p. 369. Hereafter references will be given to The Faerie Queene by Book, Canto, and stanza. The present citation is from VI, 7, 44.

  45. The Faerie Queene, VI, 7, 37.

  46. Ibid., VI, 7, 38.

  47. Ibid., VI, 7, 28.

  48. Ibid.

  49. Ibid., VI, 7, 30.

  50. Ibid., VI, 7, 31.

  51. Much Ado, III, i, 49-56.

  52. Ibid., I, i, 119.

  53. Ibid., II, i, 362-365.

  54. Ibid., II, iii, 119-120.

  55. The Rocke of Regard, p. 43.

  56. Much Ado, II, i, 19-22.

  57. Parallels between Beatrice and Katherine are of course obvious, but it is worth pointing out that the adjective “curst” is applied at least ten times to Katherine.

  58. Much Ado, I, i, 125-129.

  59. Ibid., I, i, 167-170.

  60. “Spenserian ‘Courtesy’ and ‘Temperance’ in Shakespeare's Much Ado About Nothing,” pp. 129-132.

  61. Much Ado, II, iii, 197-200.

  62. The Faerie Queene, I, 9, 10.

  63. Ibid., I, 9, 11.

  64. Ibid., I, 9, 12.

  65. Much Ado, I, i, 39-42.

  66. Ibid., III, ii, 10-12.

  67. Ibid., I, i, 184-187.

  68. Ibid., II, i, 199.

  69. The Poetical Works of Edmund Spenser, p. 428.

  70. George Gascoigne's A Hundreth Sundrie Flowres, ll. 49-52, p. 203.

  71. “The Garden of Vnthriftinesse,” The Rocke of Regard, p. 100.

  72. Ibid., pp. 80-82.

  73. This is a rather crude adaptation of one of Gascoigne's better poems, “Gascoignes araignement,” which concludes,

    “Thus am I Beauties bounden thrall,
    At hir commaunde when she doth call.”

    A Hundreth Sundrie Flowres, pp. 144-145.

  74. Much Ado, I, i, 236-237.

  75. Ibid., V, iv, 92-93.

  76. Ibid., V, iv, 94-97.

  77. Ibid., I, i, 167-168.

  78. Ibid., II, i, 343-344, 349-350.

  79. Ibid., II, i, 325-326.

  80. Hebel and Hudson, op. cit., p. 106.

  81. Much Ado, II, iii, 7-12.

  82. Hebel and Hudson, op. cit., p. 137.

  83. Much Ado, II, i, 76-83.

  84. Ibid., II, i, 84.

  85. Ibid., II, i, 85-86.

  86. Ibid., I, i, 191.

  87. Ibid., II, iii, 23-28.


Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

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.

Patrick Carnegy (review date 18 May 2002)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

SOURCE: Carnegy, Patrick. Review of Much Ado about Nothing. Spectator 288, no. 9067 (18 May 2002): 58.

[In the following review, Carnegy offers a positive assessment of Gregory Doran's 2002 Royal Shakespeare Company production of Much Ado about Nothing, contending that the director crafted a delicate balance between the drama's urbane comedy and sinister undertones.]

The brilliant artifice of the wit in Much Ado is a dance over an abyss, and yet it needs firm ground if its steps are not to falter. What draws us to the play is delight in its exquisitely protracted verbal fencing between Beatrice and Benedick, played in Gregory Doran's new production by Harriet Walter and Nicholas le Prevost. Their sallies can bear a wealth of interpretation but need a context that will make light of the absurdities in the plotting.

Doran and his designer Stephen Brimson Lewis go the whole way with the Sicilian thing. Leonato's sun-baked terracotta villa rises up impressively behind Messina's town square; dogs bark, the famous marionettes are put through their paces, ragazzi tear about and bands strike up.

The period is quite precisely May 1936 when Mussolini's troops returned in triumph from Ethiopia (thus injecting new meaning into Claudio's naughty joke about being prepared to marry anyone but an ‘Ethiope’). So, yes, it's once again that fascist milieu beloved of today's directors, though refreshing in that ominous political overtones are absent. High spirits prevail. Dogberry and his Watch are the kind of idiotic law-enforcement officers cherished in any happy-go-lucky society. Don Pedro and his men look as though they could be in the army for the uniforms. The only discord of any consequence is that between Beatrice and Benedick. Against this, of course, has to be set the machinations of the blackshirt baddy Don John and his accomplices, but in truth they're rather like Herr Flick and his crew in 'Allo 'Allo, cranking the action along and really just there to wind up the fun.

This, then, is the kind of verismo staging that sends you back to the Sicilian storyteller Giovanni Verga and Mascagni's Cavalleria Rusticana. There is, however, a small but not insignificant problem in that Shakespeare's characters are not hot-blooded Sicilians but Brits, far better at playing with emotions in words than living them through. What you've got here is Shakespeare's characters as tourists abroad. Not that this really matters unless you've been seduced by the Sicilian milieu and are puzzled why everyone's so fearfully English.

Harriet Walter begins promisingly enough in macho-Sicilian style by straddling the Despatch Rider's motorcycle (a role known neither to Quarto nor Folio). Later, in fuchsia-pink and with flowers in her hair, she has a stab at Carmen. Most disconcerting, though, is that for the crucial scene when defences tumble and cupid triumphs, she appears in appalling baggy trousers and with a sun-hat slung on her back as though she were Cherie in Tuscany. But of course it's the words that count and Walter puts them across with her characteristically sharp relish. When Benedick remarks that they are ‘too wise to woo peaceably’ she drops her jaw to flash her vixen's teeth. Doubtless, the impossible Cherie outfit simply signals that the folly of love has momentarily gained the upper hand.

A touch of frustration is evident in Walter's engaging performance as she's getting very little sexual energy back from le Prevost's Benedick. She's so fired up that Hero (Kirsten Parker) has to hose her down, while this Benedick is a bachelor almost beyond ignition. Prevost puts him across as a sardonically dry stalwart of the officer's mess. Settled down with his whisky to deplore Claudio's infatuation with Hero, he can't help twitching as he contemplates the kind of woman who might make a fool of him too. He is measured and not fantastical in his sparring with Beatrice. Even when they've declared their loves, he quickly retrieves his military bearing and brushes her hand from his shoulder as he departs to kill Claudio. You quake to think of their future.

Other sexual politics are also at work. Clive Wood's Prince, Don Pedro, is a commandant with a weakness for his junior fellow-officer Claudio (John Hopkins) verging on the inadvisable. One senses that the resonantly masculine Wood (who should have been playing Antony rather than Enobarbus in the Antony and Cleopatra running in repertory with Much Ado), was less than perfectly in tune with this camp perspective on Pedro.

This is a Much Ado rich in high jinks and vivid theatricality, but Doran eventually gives full measure to the darker side of the play. The transition from sunshine to shadow during Hero's cruelly aborted wedding is stunningly effective. And here Gary Waldhorn's impressive performance as Leonato, Hero's father, is crucial. In a chilling instant his urbanity and good humour yield to an anger and thirst for vengeance of truly Sicilian intensity. Much Ado may be a comedy, but Doran is surely right to insist we shouldn't forget the less than cheerful vision at its core.

Philip Traci (essay date fall 1982)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

SOURCE: Traci, Philip. “‘Come, 'tis no matter. / Do not you meddle’: Too Much Ado in Shakespeare's Comedy.” Upstart Crow 4 (fall 1982): 107-12.

[In the following essay, Traci discusses the motif of meddling in the affairs of others in Much Ado about Nothing, particularly with respect to the romantic relationship between Beatrice and Benedick.]

However critics have viewed Much Ado About Nothing,1 whether as happy comedy2 or Shakespeare's most cynical study in the genre3, they have agreed that its title, despite its seeming throwaway quality, carries significance. Here, however, agreement ends. Dorothy Hockey sees a central pun in the Elizabethan pronunciation of “nothing” as “nothing”, which underscores, she points out, the noting and misnoting in the play.4 The pun is not without significance to such studies as those of Berry, Evans, and Lewalski, which focus in different ways on different levels of “knowing.”5 The differences among Claudio's eyes, even when they negotiate for themselves, the Friar's patient and compassionate observation, and Dogberry's Watch's foolish but saving discoveries are as obvious as significant.

The difference among the three are not only in the way in which they see and come to know, but also in the ways in which they react or let be. The title, I suggest, also implies that too much doing or meddling in the affairs of others—especially lovers—is less helpful to a healthy resolution than doing nothing more than allowing the natural course of events to take place.

Meddling is underscored in the text: While Claudio specifically asks Benedick if he has “noted” Hero, the Prince offers his assistance even before he is asked (I. i. 274-279). Before Don John asks Conrade and Borachio if they will assist him to cross his brother, the Prince (I. iii. 59-60), Conrade has asked him if he can make any use of his discontent (1. 34) and Borachio promptly provides him with the opportunity (11. 51ff.). Both the Friar and Dogberry and his men (whose values of course better reflect those of the play) bring positive results more through observation than meddlesome action. The Friar's long and highlighted speech (IV. i. 153-168) is in stark contrast to Leonato's hasty “Confirmed, confirmed!” (1. 148). He asks simply that he be heard a little (1. 153). Doesn't the line imply staging in which he passively, patiently watches all that has preceded? He has “only been silent so long” and only now “given way to this course of action” by “noting of the lady.” He offers as authority the fact that those gathered—loved ones of the bride and groom I should add—trust his reading, observation, experience, age, reverence, calling, and divinity (11. 163-166). That the Friar prefaces each of these appeals to authority with negatives (“trust not,” “nor,” etc.) underscores, I suggest, that he advocates pause, patience, and restraint, rather than action. The only advice he offers is to “pause awhile” (1. 198) to “let her awhile be secretly kept in, / And publish it that she is dead indeed” (11. 201-202). The Friar offers no specific course of action other than to let nature take its course so that Claudio's grief at Hero's “death” will naturally “restore” his love.

If the Friar's “counsel” lacks the tone of meddlesome ado, however, Shakespeare's addition to his source in the characters of Dogberry and his Watch underlines even more this course of benign neglect. The recent vogue for Keystone Kops with their attendant frenzy does not erase the passivity advocated in their lines. Dogberry, the chief, if shallow, fool who discovers what the wisdom of others could not, “charge[s]” (III. iii. 22) his Watch repeatedly to avoid rather than to confront a villain: “take no note of him, but let him go” (1. 26). If Dogberry's men are “to meddle,” it is with “none but the Prince's subjects” (11. 31-32). They are, moreover, to “make no noise in the streets.” His men can hardly be seen to espouse a code that advocates greater activity, for they would “rather sleep than talk.” They are, however, admonished against complete inactivity, for they are told to “have a care that your bills be not stolen” and to “bid those that are drunk get them to bed.”

Dogberry's charge continues to advocate non-intervention. While they may lay hands on a thief, for example, they must remember that “they that touch pitch will be defiled,” and even more significantly, with “such kind of men, the less you meddle with them, why, the more is for your honesty” (11. 48-50). “The most peaceable way for you, if you do take a thief, he observes, “is to let him show himself what he is, and steal out of your company” (l. 53ff.). Surely the admirability of such conduct by these “shallow fools” is underscored when the “wise” old Leonato's impatience before the wedding will not allow him to pause to listen to the Watch that has already captured the villains. “I must leave you,” he says, since he is “in great haste.” His offering wine to the Watch as he exits is one of his most commendable, if perfunctory, gestures in the play.

After his charge about the thieves, Dogberry, who has “been always called a merciful man,” and “would not hang a man by [his] will, much more a man who hath any honest in him,” suggests even less ado than Verges' charge that “if you hear a child cry in the night, you must call to the nurse and bid her still it!” When asked, “If the nurse be asleep and will not hear us?”, he adds simply, “Why then, depart in peace and let the child wake her with crying: for the ewe that will not hear her lamb when it baes will never answer a calf when he bleats.” Leonato could well profit from such advice. And the advice, works, after all, for Conrade and Borachio are revealed more through their own confessions than through either arrest or examination.

While Shakespeare's other most notable additions to his source, Beatrice and Benedick, might seem to argue for the positive results of meddlesome matchmaking, the case, I suggest, is otherwise. Beatrice, after all, reminds us that Benedick “lent” his heart to her once before, when she gave him use of hers (II. i. 249-250). The cementing of their union by the characteristically meddlesome Prince, who has offered his services to Claudio and his hand to Beatrice with a superficiality outdone only by his despicable behavior in the church, would not be convincing. He decides to bring Beatrice and Benedick together only in order that “the time shall not go dully by us” “in the interim between Claudio's betrothal and his marriage” (11. 323-324). The tenuousness of the union of the warring lovers as joined by the jovial medlers is emphasized both when Beatrice tests Benedick's love by ordering him to “Kill Claudio” (high meddling indeed!) and at the play's conclusion.

Such a focus on non-interferring heightens the dramatic sympathy of Benedick. While Dogberry's instinct and the Friar's trust have received ample critical attention, Benedick's virtues have not. It may very well be overreading to see Benedick's non-meddling in his “five wits … halting off” (I. i. 57), in his talking but nobody marking him (11. 103-104), his always ending “with a jade's trick” (1. 129), and bearing the disguised Beatrice's disdain when even “an oak but with one green leaf on it would have answered her” (II. i. 216). But the evidence does accumulate. He responds to her verbal sallies not with retaliation but by begging the Prince to send him on some errand “to the world's end” (11. 236-237), and instinctively responds to Beatrice's “Kill Claudio” with “Not for the wide world!” When Beatrice complains, “You kill me to deny it,” Benedick's “Tarry, sweet Beatrice” mirrors the patience that provides comic resolutions. Surely killing Claudio could not do that. Even when Benedick does agree to be Beatrice and Hero's champion by challenging his friend Claudio, he merely “discontinues” the Prince's company, leaves Claudio to his gossip-like humor (he certainly isn't in mourning yet for his lost bride), and even wishes Claudio peace until they meet again (V. i. 179ff.). Coming so soon after Leonato's aggressive “challenge to the trail of a man” (1. 66), the contrast is revealing.

But then the whole Beatrice and Benedick matchmaking is framed from beginning to end with indications that the lovers must join themselves. Without too much ado, the play suggests, the natural course of things would have led to their eventual marriage. Hero knows the Signoir Mountanto (I. i. 27) that Beatrice asks after is Benedick since he's all her cousin ever thinks about. Even the meddlesome Prince and Claudio know of their love or they wouldn't have set about to bring them together. The audience realizes that the labor is not Herculean, but comically inevitable.

Even as the Prince, Claudio, and Leonato prepare their meddlesome plot to join the witty lovers (with Benedick already in the arbor), the men enter “with Music” (s.d. ff. II. iii. 133). The lyrics of their song are not without significance to my focus:

Sigh, no more ladies, sigh no more!
          Men were deceivers ever,
One foot in sea, and one on shore;
          To one thing constant never,

the song begins. The refrain of “Then sigh not so, / But let them go” that echoes through the song merely repeats the advice that we have noted throughout the play as a whole:

          Then sigh not so,
          But let them go,
          And be you blithe and bonny,
Converting all your sounds of woe
          Into Hey nonny, nonny.
Sigh no more ditties, sing no moe,
          Of dumps so dull and heavy!
The fraud of men was ever so,
          Since summer first was leavy.
                    Then sigh not so, & c.

The strongest evidence, however, that the play points to the lovers themselves (or Providence) rather than the unsympathetic meddlers bringing about the union of Beatrice and Benedick is the ending. Even after Benedick has proven that he is willing to challenge Claudio to the death, Beatrice, who has up to now “against her will” been sent not only to urge him to dinner (II. iii. 226-227), but also to love him, once more challenges his love. And he, hers. Significantly, they have “own hands against [their] hearts” (V. iv. 91-92) to provide the “miracle” that joins them. To note the importance of this miracle at such a climactic point in the text (which could even now undo all that has been joined) is not, like Benedick, to see “a double meaning” where there is none (II. iii. 237), but rather to notice a motif the play emphasizes. That the miracle is here provided by the lovers themselves is as meaningful as “the miracle that Heaven provides” with Ragozine's death in Measure for Measure.

But if Benedick and Beatrice are, despite their surface contentiousness, willing to “follow the leaders” “in every good thing,” they (unlike Claudio, the Prince, Leonato, and Antonio) “leave them at the next turning,” “if they lead to any ill” (II. i. 135-138). Even Don John seems to follow in his meddling in the play. Don John merely mentions the marriage that will take place; Borachio offers the fact that he “can cross it” (II. ii. 3). While Don John asks how he can cross it, he must be prompted by Borachio that he “spare not to tell [his brother] that he hath wronged his honor in marrying the renowed Claudio (whose estimation do you mightily hold up) to a contaminated stale, such a one as Hero” (11. 19-22). Again Don John needs to be prompted. When he asks, “What proof shall I make of that?” Borachio replies, “Proof enough to misuse the Prince, to vex Claudio, to undo Hero, and kill Leonato” (11. 24-25). The order proves prophetic enough in the climactic order he reveals. It also makes clear the degree of wasteful suffering his meddling causes others in order to “misuse” the Prince.

Don John, though “a plain-dealing villain” (I. iii. 28), is thus rare among Shakespeare's villains in that another proposes his “miching mallecho” rather than his initiating it. He, like Antonio and Leonato, those “two old men without teeth” (V. i. 116), cannot “bite” (I. iii. 30-31). If Antonio's line that titles this paper is delivered to Leonato with comic impotence as he challenges Claudio and the Prince (“Come, 'tis no matter. / Do not meddle”), the line is not without significance to the play as a whole. So too is it important that Don John does not initiate the villainy. He is a villain appropriate for a comedy; dangerous enough to devise “brave punishments” for and yet not so powerful that he can defeat the festive and amorous victories at the play's end. As the pipers strike up and the dance begins, we realize that it is appropriate that Benedick, rather than the Prince or Leonato or Claudio, advise us that we “think not on him till to-morrow.” Without much more ado, the dance begins.


  1. William Shakespeare, Much Ado About Nothing, edited Josephine Waters Bennett (1958, rpt. Baltimore, Maryland: Penquin Books, Inc., 1962), V. i. 100-101. All subsequent quotations from Much Ado in this paper are from this edition and are included in the body of the text.

  2. John Dover Wilson, Shakespeare's Happy Comedies (London: Faber and Faber, 1962) is, of course, but one of those who have traditionally dubbed Much Ado one of the happy or “joyous” comedies.

  3. M. M. Mahood in her introduction to volume 32, “The Middle Comedies,” of Shakespeare Survey, 1979, admirably surveys “a generation of criticism,” as she entitles her work. For those who see the harsher view of Much Ado, she points to A. P. Rossiter, Angel With Horns, and those who focus on the frailties of Claudio, pp. 1-13.

  4. Shakespeare Quarterly, 8 (1957), 353-358.

  5. Ralph Berry, Shakespeare's Comedies: Explorations in Form (Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1972); Bertrand Evans, Shakespeare's Comedies, 1960, rpt. New York: Oxford University Press, 1967); B. K. Lewalski, “Love, Appearance, and Reality: Much Ado About Something,” Studies in English Literature (1968), 235-251.

John Drakakis (essay date 1987)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

SOURCE: Drakakis, John. “Trust and Transgression: The Discursive Practices of Much Ado about Nothing.” In Post-Structuralist Readings of English Poetry, edited by Richard Machin and Christopher Norris, pp. 59-84. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1987.

[In the following essay, Drakakis presents an interpretation of Much Ado about Nothing informed by post-structuralist theoretical principles.]


In 1834 Coleridge announced the transformation of Shakespeare from a professional dramatist into an individual consciousness whose plays were the repositories of timeless truths. Hence his assertion that Shakespeare “is of no age—nor, may I add, of any religion, or party, or profession”.1 With very few adjustments, the myth has proved durable, with those truths resurfacing recently as the “eterne mutabilitie” of the human condition, those “perennial, unhistorical variations of temperament” which comprise the irreducible core of “human nature”.2 Coleridge had already laid the foundations for the removal of Shakespeare from history some twenty years earlier, in about 1813, in some notes for a lecture in which he formulated a theory of dramatic character which was to receive its most sophisticated expression less than a century later in A. C. Bradley's Shakespearean Tragedy (1904). The subject of those earlier remarks was, ostensibly, the relation between “plot” and “character” in Much Ado about Nothing in which he anticipated modern formalist distinctions between sujet and fabula, and the narratological distinction between histoire and discours:

Take away from Much Ado about Nothing all that which is not indispensable to the plot, either as having little to do with it, or at best, like Dogberry and his comrades, forced into the service when any other less ingeniously absurd watchmen and night-constables would have answered; take away Benedick, Beatrice, Dogberry, and the reaction of the former on the character of Hero, and what will remain? In other writers the main agent of the plot is always the prominent character. In Shakespeare so or not so, as the character is in itself calculated to form the plot. So Don John, the mainspring of the plot, is merely shown and withdrawn.3

Coleridge's comments on Much Ado about Nothing, especially his suggestion that Don John, “the mainspring of the plot, is merely shown and withdrawn”, betray an uneasiness that once the identifiable elements of fabula and discours are stripped away, then we may be left with “nothing”, implying that what may really be at stake here is an irreducibly essentialist conception of “character”. What is at risk for Coleridge is the possibility that the play may not contain that “true idea” of which the dramatic structure itself is but an ancillary support. Indeed, the very title of the play is an affront to any expressive theory of meaning, and is, in many ways, a challenge to those forms of criticism based upon such a theory. If, after analysis, the textual representations of universal truths are to be dismissed as “nothing”, then even assuming a Coleridgean intentionalist theory of character, signification will depend upon a trust which we are invited to place in the critic's own perception of a non-material reality whose essence is derived in stark opposition to textual appearances but whose ultimate location is beyond the play of difference which characterizes the act of signification itself. Thus, beyond that “nothing”, that material encounter with textual surfaces, there must be “something” more real, uncomplicated by the play of textual difference, a single meaning which it is the purpose of criticism to detach from the text.

This idealism (which lies at the root of much orthodox interpretation of Shakespearean Comedy) depends for its veracity upon a commitment to what Pierre Macherey has termed “the normative fallacy”, whereby a text may be modified, “in order to assimilate it more thoroughly, denying its factual reality as being merely the provisional version of an unfulfilled intention”.4 The recent placements of this critical strategy, along with aesthetics itself, within the purview of ideology—that hidden means of producing and reproducing as “natural” and “true” relations upon which particular social formations depend for their existence—has far-reaching consequences for the study of Shakespeare.5 Above all, it has served to bring sharply into focus the contradictions which lie at the heart of attempts to come to terms with Shakespearean Comedy in general and Much Ado about Nothing in particular. A classic example occurs in H. B. Charlton's book, Shakespearean Comedy (1938), in which he asserts, on the one hand, that “comedy is social rather than metaphysical or theological”, while, on the other, he seeks to locate “Shakespeare's comic idea” as what Charlton calls “his surest clue to the secret of man's common and abiding welfare”.6 At one and the same time history is acknowledged and refused, a seemingly contradictory critical strategy which has proved extraordinarily resilient in the case of Much Ado about Nothing.

Recuperative ploys such as this are symptomatic of a tendency which would negotiate away those contradictions which constitute the “factual reality” of the play, reducing drastically its complex discursive structures, smoothing over its complex web of contested significations, in the interests of locating some controlling idea secreted at its core but anterior to its structure—in short, its “transcendental signified”. For example, John Russell Brown considers the structure of the play to depend “almost entirely on one central theme … that of appearance and reality, outward and inward beauty, words and thoughts—in short, the theme of love's truth”.7 More recent criticism of the play has undertaken to refine this “theme”, locating the conflict as being between “right” and “wrong deception” with the latter constituting an obstacle to aesthetic and moral harmony finally being overcome by those “good” values: “with suspicion replaced by trust, and with destructive biting by a marriage feast”.8 This type of treatment of thematic contrast in the play aways culminates in the proposal of the total eclipse of one term by another, and is symptomatic of a more generalized ethical criticism which claims to offer an objective, empirically derived record of the dramatic conflict, but which, in fact, imposes a theological pattern on the play.9 As such, this kind of criticism is always caught in contradiction by what Fredric Jameson has called “the mirage of an utterly non-theoretical practice”.10

One of the most recent sustained examples of this kind of criticism is Alexander Leggatt's attempt to blend thematic unity and structural contrast together in his suggestion that the action of Much Ado about Nothing is structured around “an interplay of formality and naturalism”.11 Opposed though these structural elements may be, that conflict is ultimately resolved, and indeed dissolved, in the perception “that however individual we are we are ultimately bound by the rhythms of life, and we must follow the leaders”. Here textual difference and larger stylistic oppositions are neatly displaced by a meaning which is gently prized free from process to clear a path for the return of familiar essentialist distinctions: appearance/reality, formal/natural, individual/society. Yet in the final analysis these terms are seen as two sides of the same epistemological coin, so that the play can be made, as it were naturally, to yield up that truth artfully lodged at its centre: “the idea of human reality at the heart of social convention”.12 This, it need hardly be said, is a bourgeois, liberal humanist “reality” whose intentions are naturally expressed through “social convention”, though somehow individuals submit to its demands voluntarily through the imposition upon process of a mystifying logic: “we are ultimately bound by the rhythms of life and we must follow the leaders”. So totalizing a rhetoric of social and political quiescence presupposes an always already constituted bourgeois “subject”, but also calls to mind Walter Benjamin's astringent observation that there is “no document of civilization which is not at the same time a document of barbarism”.13

Leggatt's reading of the play, which conforms to the underlying theory of comedy proposed by Northrop Frye in his Anatomy of Criticism (1957), implies that Utopia is the ultimate objective of the comic action, and is realized at the point of the resolution of the action when the “inner” (“the idea of human reality”) harmonizes with that which fully expresses it, the “outer” (“social convention”). If we theorize this critical stance, then it becomes clear that the moment of carnivalesque release which brings inner into conflict with outer, and which could be read in terms of a political rupture, is aesthetically necessary as the precondition for clarifying what is really a deep structural unity which exists between the two, and which the comic closure finally confirms. This moment of aesthetic closure, the culminating moment in the process of the production of harmony, marks the erasure of textual difference, and is, according to this problematic, the point at which the human essence achieves self-identity and restablishes its existence beyond discourse. What this theory suppresses are those irreducibly dialogic elements of discursive practice, whose challenge to official ideology is always recoverable from the text, and whose irrepressible presence signifies that meaning is always a site of ideological struggle. This is the carnivalesque discourse that resists domestication, directing us back to the place where meanings are produced. In the words of Valentin Volosinov: “there is nothing in the structure of signification that could be said to transcend the generative process, to be independent of the dialectical expansion of the social purview”.14


The reduction of the material contradictions which permeate the discourses of Much Ado about Nothing to an ordered hierarchy of fixed meaning is nowhere more evident than in the attempts to identify the meaning of the play's title. Since, apparently “nothing” and “noting” were homophones for the Elizabethans, it has been assumed that the play was about “noting” and “misnoting”,15 but more recent criticism has sought to explore the sexual connotations of “nothing” as a synonym for what E. A. M. Coleman, careful to avoid any suggestion of prurience, calls “the female pudend”.16 “Nothing”, we may recall, was what Hamlet thought was “a fair thought to lie between maids' legs” (Hamlet, III.ii.127), while in Antony and Cleopatra this metonym is made to stand for womankind generally, as Enobarbus, commenting upon Cleopatra's sexual prowess, is made to observe: “Under a compelling occasion let women die: it were pity to cast them away for nothing, though between them and a great cause, they should be esteemed nothing” (I.ii.134-7). The location of gender in an absence which is both physical and cerebral, augmented with a language of valuation, reinforces the concept of the gendered female subject not in terms of an object or an essence, but a relation. Moreover, this is also true of “nothing” as it appears in King Lear, where Lear's chilling “Nothing will come of nothing” (I.i.92) emphasizes a process of “subjection” which reaches inwards towards a domestic filial relation, and outwards to the promised land which doubles as a marriage dowry and as the material expression of political power. It is, in the circumstances, insufficient to invoke a simple linguistic plenitude, pace the New Arden editor of Much Ado about Nothing, and to assert vacuously that “The play's title is, in fact, teasingly full of meaning.”17

Clearly, there are considerable dangers in reducing Much Ado about Nothing to a unitary “meaning”, just as there are in reducing the conflicts in the play to a resolution between two terms for supremacy in which it can be assumed that ultimately the traces of that conflict will be erased. To the ever-growing list of binary oppositions to which the action of the play has been reduced, could be added “trust” and “transgression”, in so far as the preferred term in each equation is the index of a hypostasized meaning which is located beyond the essentially dialectical processes of signification altogether, establishing a permanent and unchanging “truth” about an equally hypostasized “human nature”. I propose to argue, drawing upon Saussure, that terms such as “trust” and “transgression” are, in fact, differentially derived, and thus must be “defined not positively, in terms of their content, but negatively, by contrast with other items in the same system. What characterizes each most exactly is being whatever the others are not.”18 Such terms—and they exist within the play—constitute the discourses through whose mechanisms reality is constructed, and it is important that an attentive criticism should do more than simply ventriloquize certain of the differentially constructed elements of these discourses as if they were objective truths. But, in addition to Saussure's radical perception, a distinction should be made between the notion of difference functioning within an abstract linguistic system and conservatively reinforcing the stability of the system itself (the project of the more domesticated forms of structuralism), and the manner of its operation dialectically within particular historically specific discursive practices at the place where ideology reduces the plurality of possible meanings to singular meaning. To speak of “trust” and “transgression” in this context is not to ventriloquize the text's “secret coherence”. Rather, it is to insist that terms are forced into an axiological relation with each other through difference, and that to explore their dialectical relation is to lay bare the text's own ideological processes.

In purely bibliographical terms Much Ado about Nothing is already a deeply fissured text. The quarto of 1600, thought to have been printed from Shakespeare's foul papers, retains inconsistent speech-headings and, for the romantic essentialist, at least two puzzling scene-headings. Dogberry is variously referred to in speech-headings as “Const.”, “Andrew”, and “Kemp”, interpellations which traverse social role, dramatic/comic role, and the name of the actor who is behind the illusion. Dogberry is self-evidently the site of a full play of intertextual relations involving history, literary tradition, and professional theatrical practice. Similarly, though not quite to the same extent, Verges is variously referred to as “Headborough” and “Couly”. More intriguing, the scene-headings for I.i. and II.i. contain references to the supposed wife of Leonato: “Innogen his wife” (I.i.) and “His wife” (II.i.). In Spenser's The Faerie Queene, Book II, which contains a version of the plot of Much Ado about Nothing, the figure of “Inogene” appears as the wife of Brutus, “faire Inogene of Italy” (X.13) but it is generally thought that the references in Shakespeare's play are to an early draft, and since 1733 editors have systematically excised her from editions. Her name appears in Furness's variorum edition of the play,19 but for A. R. Humphreys she is a disturbingly Pirandellian figure, “an unrealized intention” and he goes on to assert with worrying certainty that “originally” Shakespeare “meant Hero to have a mother … but then found no use for her”.20

In a play in which questions of identity and social role are consistently foregrounded, in which the paternalistic control and “silencing” of female characters is a norm,21 and in which the one exception to that rule can be metonymically reduced to the appelation “my Lady Tongue” (II.i.252), this reduction of the wifely role to silence—the position towards which Beatrice herself gravitates in the play—which diplomatically constituted texts have been prepared to excise, or banish to footnotes, represents in an unusually explicit form the place of the woman in the play's own network of significations. From the woman silence is expected, or achieved through genial coercion as she submits to the paternalistic power of her “governor”; at the moment of transformation from “shrew” to legitimate object of desire Beatrice internalizes this process: “And Benedick, love on, I will requite thee, / Taming my wildness to thy loving hand” (III.i.111-12). In such circumstances, the relegation of “Innogen” to the status of “an unrealized intention” conceals an essentially romantic theory of composition and is consistent with an empiricist theory of meaning. It rejects implicitly what Catherine Belsey has called the notion of meaning as “interindividual intelligibility”,22 abstracting meaning from the play's network of colliding discourses, and is thus caught in the act of processing “truth”.

But abstracting a transcendent “truth” from the discursive practices of Much Ado about Nothing is precarious, at best, since unlike most of Shakespeare's other comedies the play contains no identifiable centre in the form of a hero and/or heroine, and therefore contains no metonym for it. Pace Charles I, who designated the play “the comedie of Benedick and Betteris”, critics have been generally disposed to accord them this central position: “Beatrice and Benedick, resembling stars, but serving as planets, outshine those about whom they revolve.”23 Conversely, much critical effort has been expended in asserting the essential weakness of Hero, and the objectionable character of Claudio.24 What most critics have had some difficulty in coping with is the structural fact that the “plot” effectively deconstructs itself; the plan to bring Benedick and Beatrice together is undertaken using the same mechanism as that which Don John uses to drive Hero and Claudio apart. This difficulty has been negotiated either by extolling “right deception”25 or, more usually, by insisting that Beatrice and Benedick (like Petruchio and Katherina in The Taming of the Shrew) are essentially in love with each other, and always have been.26 One other feature of the play, which does not appear in any of the versions of the story which were current at the time of performance, is that the obstacle to the attainment of harmony is a villain of a special sort, not a harsh or impersonal social law dividing young and old. Don John's “malevolence and unsociability”, marked by “images of sickness, festering poison, and incompatibility (the canker-rose, the thief of love, the muzzled dog, the caged bird) and by themes of resentment and moroseness” are, according to A. R. Humphreys, defined by his being “a rebel and a bastard”.27 In a play concerned with marriage and its impediments a reversal of Humphreys's formula would seem to be nearer the mark: Don John is a rebel because he is a bastard.

The question of Don John's bastardy is, in principle, similar to that involving the role of “Innogen” in that it is concerned with the whole issue of the construction of human subjectivity in the play. In general this issue involves what Althusser calls a “Law of Culture”, a collective term for those historically specific processes which are “the determinate ideological formations in which the persons inscribed in these structures live their functions”.28 Don John's subjectivity cannot be reduced to a role in an Oedipal drama, nor is it sufficient merely to explain his function in post-structuralist terms as a supplement at the origin which constantly resists the closure of the logocentric oppositions of the text (although at a purely formal level this is precisely what Don John does). Rather, he is to be situated at the very point where “pleasure” and “power” intersect. Don John is not “pleasure” standing in opposition to “power”, since, as Michel Foucault has observed: “Pleasure and power do not cancel or turn back against one another; they seek out, overlap, and reinforce one another.”29 Structurally he represents the material consequence of pleasure undertaken in defiance of the constraints of power, and thus, translated into historically specific terms, he is the “other” against which the political economy of Messina defines itself differentially. Don John is controlled by being accorded a “christian” subjectivity (his name is the commonest of Christian names according to the OED), but he is, by virtue of his illegitimacy, without a “surname” and therefore without access to the socially accepted political channels of the power/pleasure economy. Paradoxically, the definition of Don John's “subjectivity” involves exclusion from the political mechanisms of the social formation within which that definition is inscribed. It is a contradiction which Shakespeare broaches in the later play King Lear, in the figure of Gloucester's bastard son, Edmund.

In a provocative, but finally idealistic account of the play, Marilyn French argues that Don John's position is, in structural and epistemological terms, that of the “outlaw feminine”, and that his rebellion is “terrifying because it comes out of a sense of powerlessness and seems to want nothing”.30 This is to presuppose the existence of an essential “feminine principle” which will ultimately collapse sexuality into the gendered subject. The play itself inscribes femininity within a powerful masculine discourse, and it is in this context that Don John should be viewed as the product of the very type of violation of an institutionally derived femininity against which Messina's masculine “honour” code is differentially produced. Don John occupies, rather, the place of “transgression”, and as such in both historical and social terms he has neither legitimate political position nor self-identity; he is literally “nothing”, he does not and cannot signify in any actantial sense within a logocentric scheme of things. It is significant that though he supports Borachio's plot he is not the agent of its execution, and therefore to suggest that “he seems to want nothing” is to misread discursive practice as though it were simply an effect of essence. A better way of theorizing Don John's position is to suggest that he is “profanation”, in that he refuses to accept that the sacred has meaning, and this places him within Foucault's definition of “transgression” as “profanation in a world which no longer recognizes any positive meaning in the sacred”.31 But it is important to remember that Don John's transgression is emphatically not a liberation from ideology; on the contrary, his position in the play is conceptualized as part of an ethical universe—he is “evil”—and his radical freedom must be coerced. In general terms, therefore, we may say that Don John becomes the mechanism in Much Ado about Nothing whereby the plurality of possible meanings is ruthlessly reduced to a singular, authoritative meaning; this is performed by the forcible subjugation of the disruptive term “bastard”, which always returns and threatens to undo the social formation. It is no accident that the play begins with a military victory in which Don John was an adversary—if not the adversary—and it ends in a similar fashion.

In Much Ado about Nothing the management of sexual relations, and the construction of gendered subjects, is bound up with questions of power and hence of politics. Far from celebrating a “consonance” of “Head and heart, style and substance, convention and nature”32 in any naive or essentialist sense, the play's aesthetic presents through the symbolic language of festivity a victory by force over a particular threat to Messina's determinate social institutions from a villain who “transgresses” its “ideological formations”, profanes its sacred values, and exposes a series of contradictions lying at the heart of its discursive practices. But of course Don John has no existence independent from Messina's institutions; he is a “visitor” certainly, but he is also the brother of the legitimate Don Pedro, “Prince of Arragon”. Thus, he represents the point at which relations of power manifest themselves negatively as “refusal, limitation, obstruction, censorship”, and as such his challenge to the formally constituted relations in the play appears, to use Foucault's terms, “only as transgression”.33

What Don John's activities in the play highlight is a contest for “history” itself, opposing an “illegitimate” history that is forced to make itself against a “legitimate” history whose status is both sovereign and privileged. The result, however, is not a radical questioning in any conscious sense of the privileged status of historical narrative as such (a radical scepticism which might be taken to form one strand of post-structuralism in its Nietzschean guise), but a struggle for domination at the level of domestic relations at a time when “legitimate” history is under internal pressure to revise its own practices. The problems arise at the very point where “history” enters “discourse”. It is important to realize that we are not here dealing with an object, but with what Fredric Jameson has called an “absent cause”, which is only accessible in textual form, and that as such “it passes through its prior textualization, its narrativization, in the political unconscious”.34 The specific significance of this for a play such as Much Ado about Nothing is that its concern is never with an object, a transcendental signified, a “something” to which its discourses can ultimately be reduced, but with a series of overlapping class and gender relations which always already exist and which are inscribed within the political unconscious as “prior textualizations”. It is disturbance at the level of the play's symbolic language that gives us some purchase upon the text's unconscious processes, those areas of which it cannot expressly speak.

The term which occupies that point at which the full range of the play's interrelated discourses converge is “honour”, which can be separated out into its constituent elements; it is preeminently the term which mediates the play's masculine discourse, but it also inscribes within its historical narrativization of repressed social and political fears a feminine (or as Spenser's Faerie Queene would have it, a Foemen-ine) discourse of “chastity” or “virginitie”. It is in Marlowe's poem Hero and Leander, from which Shakespeare may have borrowed at least a name, that the relation between these terms is inadvertently demystified, to expose the whole gamut of masculine political relations as an “absent cause” (i.e. as a history) which can only be grasped in discourse. Leander, seeking to persuade Hero to submit, proffers the following argument:

This idoll which you terme Virginitie,
Is neither essence subject to the eye,
Nor to any one exteriour sence,
Nor hath it any place of residence,
Nor is it of earth or mold celestiall,
Or capable of any form at all.
Of that which hath no being do not boast
Things which are not at all are never lost.(35)

From the woman's perspective there is a dilemma here between freedom of personal action on the one hand, and on the other the paternalistic constraint of a socio-sexual order in which female “honour” is both determined by, as well as determining, masculine honour. Helena in All's Well that Ends Well faces part of this dilemma when she debates the issue of female chastity with the aptly named Parolles: “How might one do, sir, to lose it to her own liking?” (I.i.165-6), and it resembles in its sentiments the position which Beatrice occupies initially in Much Ado about Nothing with her potentially subversive advice to Hero to defy her father if necessary and please herself in choosing a husband; “it is my cousin's duty to make curtsy and say, ‘Father, as it please you’: but yet for all that, cousin, let him be a handsome fellow, or else make another curtsy and say, ‘Father, as it please me’” (II.i.48-52). In Othello a segment of “textualized history” is transformed into a material object in an attempt to appropriate it for an alternative discourse; Desdemona's “virginitie” upon which Othello's masculine honour rests, becomes a handkerchief which he can, under guidance from Iago, then re-texualize: “Her honour is an essence that's not seen, / They have it very oft that have it not: / But for the handkerchief—” (IV.i.16-18).

Female “honour” is valued in a paternalistic society only in so far as it accepts inscription in the constellation of discursive practices designed to textualize masculine sexual and political impulses. Marlowe's Leander can introduce his textualization of “virginitie” with a statement about female “imperfection”: “Base boullion for the stampes sake we allow, / Euen so for mens impression do we you, / By which alone, our reuerend fathers say, / Wome receaue perfection euerie way” (lines 265-8). Within the Christian tradition these discourses converge in the heavily symbolic institution of marriage, within which the woman is simultaneously interpellated as the cause of man's fall and of his salvation; it is no accident that the etymology of Beatrice's name is “She who blesses”, while that of Benedick's is “He who is blessed”. In material terms marriage is also the institution through which possession and power are legitimized and consolidated, offering “subjectivity” in the form of a social identity, and a range of discursive practices for internalizing these objective social relations at a symbolic level of emotions and affections. But differentially these positivities are defined against a constellation of anarchic “others” which collectively threaten to undo this symbolic order: the female refusal of paternal control; shrewishness, or the refusal to accept “silence”; infidelity and cuckoldry (the sexual expressions of a political anarchy); whoredom; suspicion; and—the consequence (significantly) of female promiscuity in an age without effective contraception—bastardy, that term which in the play's discursive economies opposes “honour”.


It may be argued that this is too heavy a burden of seriousness for a play such as Much Ado about Nothing to bear. But far from dealing with human abstractions which can be conveniently transported from one epoch to another, it is concerned with a series of historically specific social issues which collectively resist any idealizing critical gestures, and which Elizabethan society coped with by a form of marginalization through laughter. It is worth pausing briefly to suggest some of the ways in which these contested issues enter Elizabethan discursivities as “prior textualizations”.

The Second Tome of Homilies (1595) makes it very clear that female sexuality was conceived as part of a totalizing biblical narrative, although recently attempts have been made to suggest that this narrative was in the process of undergoing revision in favour of women during this period.36 Such revisionist claims, while not wholly inaccurate, present a polar alternative to the dominant ideology, and thus neglect to point out the contradictions which reside at the core of at least some of these revisionary texts. For the homilist in “A Homilie of the State of Matimonie”, authority in marriage rests firmly with the husband who “ought to be the leader and author of love, in cherishing and increasing concord, which then shall take place, if he will use measurablenes and not tyranny, and if he yeeld some thing to the woman”.37 The woman still requires to be controlled, however, since she is regarded as man's inferior in every way:

For the woman is a weake creature, not indued with the like strength and constancy of minde, therefore they bee the sooner disquieted, and they be the more prone to all weake affections and dispositions of minde, more then men bee, and lighter they bee, and more vaine in their fantisies and opinions.38

A little earlier, in 1592, the Puritan Henry Smith had shifted the emphasis slightly in favour of women in his sermon “A Preparative to Marriage”, in which he explained the divine origins of the institution in the following way: “In the contract Christ was conceived, and in the marriage Christ was borne, that he might honor both estates: virginitie with his conception, and marriage with his birth.”39 But Smith then went on to point out that the bearing of children in marriage reflected “honour” on the woman, but, “for the children which are borne out of marriage, are the dishonor of women, and called by the shamefull name of Bastards”.40 A little later he condemned adulterers whom he “likened to the divell, which sowed other mens ground”, inscribing the woman within a discourse of property, and he cited scripture to demonstrate that for bastards “no inheritance did belong to them in heaven, they had no inheritance in earth”.41

Some six years later in 1598, probably the year in which Much Ado about Nothing was first acted, another Puritan, Robert Cleaver, building on Smith, could take the definition of marriage a stage further, not only “spiritualizing the household”, to use Christopher Hill's phrase, but rendering its relations explicitly political. In his A Godly Form of Householde Government, he noted:

A householde is as it were a little commonwealth, by the good government whereof, God's glorie may bee aduanced, the commonwealth which standeth of seueral families benefited, and all that live in that familie may receiue much comfort and commoditie.42

Both Smith and Cleaver are caught in contradiction as each makes a liberal gesture towards the woman's position, while preserving a vocabulary of social control which has its roots in a now seriously troubled biblical narrative. But it is on the question of sexuality that Puritan and homilist alike are at one. In the “Third Part of the Sermon Against Adultery” in the Second Tome of Homilies the pleasure/power axis is negotiated through the suggestion that sexual pleasure itself has its origins in Satan: “how filthy, beastly, & short that pleasure is, whereunto Satan continually stirreth us and moveth us”.43 St Paul's wry concession that “It is better to marrie then to burne” is here seized upon by the homilist as a desperate spiritual justification for what he, and later Cleaver, expresses as, in essence, the political management of sexual activity internalized as a structure of religious feeling containing its own tension between the world of the flesh and that of the spirit.44 These are, of course, strands in a much larger body of discursive practices which, at a purely secular level, amalgamates neo-platonic, courtly, and romantic/poetic discourses, all of which are found in contemporary Elizabethan fiction, epic poems such as The Faerie Queene, the sonnet tradition, and courtier manuals such as Castiglione's The Book of the Courtier (1588).

It is this whole precarious discursive edifice which produces Don John's subjectivity that is threatened in the play. That subjectivity is more than simply a marker of “plot”, however, in that Don John internalizes a range of related discursive positions which function from an ethical standpoint to contain his disruptive potential. In his essay “Of Friendship” Francis Bacon argued that “a natural and secret hatred and aversion towards society, in any man, hath somewhat of the savage beast”,45 and it is therefore not surprising to find Don John associated with images of bestiality; he is prepared to “claw no man in his humour”, and he asserts: “If I had my mouth I would bite, if I had my liberty I would do my liking:” (I.ii.17 and 32-4). Moreover, in the essay “Of Envy” Bacon observes that “Deformed persons, and eunuchs, and old men, and bastards, are envious”, and he concludes that this characteristic is “the proper attribute of the devil, who is called The envious man, that soweth tares among the wheat by night.46 Don John is also, as Hero informs us, “of a very melancholy disposition” (II.i.5), and therefore suffers from what, in the words of Timothy Bright's A Treatise of Melancholy (1586), is called “an unnaturall temper & bastard spirite”. Moreover, given the discursive practices within which “love” is textualized, Timothy Bright's designation of the related areas which are the grounds for Don John's challenge as “the primitive emotions”, is shown to be nothing more than an empirical reading of what we have seen is an objective social formation: in Bright's terms these are “love mixed with hope” which, we are told, “breedeth trust”, and “love mixed with fear”, which breeds “distrust”.47 Behind Bright's curiously untheoretical practice lie the twin discourses of salvation and possession. Thus, to adapt Foucault's remarks in relation to “madness”, Don John may be said to represent “an area of unforeseeable freedom” where sexual impulse is in danger of becoming unchained from those discourses which would hold it in place, and like the madman's frenzy Don John's bastardy represents “the secret danger of an animality that lies in wait”, which “undoes reason in violence” and truth through its violation of social norms.48

It is here, however, that we encounter historically a mixture of fact and illusion. Peter Laslett has suggested that during the decade 1590-1600, while the population of England was a little over 4 million, bastardy accounted for just over 3 per cent of all births.49 But he also argues that while bastardy was an issue among the dominant elite, in actual fact “The engendering of children on a scale which might threaten the social structure, was never, or almost never, a present possibility.”50 Lawrence Stone argues that there is tentative evidence to suggest that on a national scale the specific pressures applied in local communities within the sphere of sexual morality resulted in low illegitimacy ratios, and that when such community pressure failed, then “any constable was empowered to break into any house in which he suspected fornication or adultery to be in progress and, if his supicions were confirmed, to carry the offender to jail or before a Justice of the Peace”.51 The role which Dogberry and Verges play in Much Ado about Nothing serves, therefore, to combine political and moral surveillance.

The picture which we get from The Homilies is, however, very different in emphasis: a difference, perhaps, between the “imaginary” and the “real”, which has come to designate for us the terrain of ideology. It would not be surprising to find both the political and domestic values which constitute the lived relations within ideology inscribed in the letter of the Law itself, especially in relation to the question of bastardy. In his Commentaries on the Laws of England the eighteenth-century lawyer Blackstone outlined explicitly the legal rights attaching to the state of bastardy. For the bastard:

The rights are very few, being only such as he can acquire for he can inherit nothing, being looked upon as the son of nobody, and sometimes called filius nulius, sometimes filius populi. Yet he may gain a surname by reputation, though he has none by inheritance.52

Excluded from all forms of inheritance, Don John is precluded from asking the question that Claudio asks Don Pedro concerning Leonato's possible “heirs”, since he has no name to promulgate. Legitimate marriage, Blackstone states, gives the husband access to all of the wife's property, though he does not suggest openly that the wife is property herself.53 Thus, while marriage itself legitimizes the transfer of property (the currency of power), reinforces a social and political identity through the sustaining of a family “name”, and is, to use Foucault's terms, that “deployment of alliance”54 whereby sexual activity enters into discourse, the bastard is without property, without identity, and stands as a defiant reminder of the underside of the pleasure/power axis as an anarchy consequent upon the transgression of its economies.55 In the legal and juridical sense of the term, and in a manner directly pertinent to Shakespeare's play, the bastard is therefore nothing, nonidentity in a society caught in the contradictory process of “naming” as the step towards “self-identity” but forced to confront, time and time again, the differential mechanisms of its own signifying practices.


Thus far I have been concerned, selectively, with areas of what might be called “the political unconscious” of Much Ado about Nothing, and I have tried to show briefly how historically specific discursive formations “mythologize” a concrete history. In specific terms, faced with either formulating a concept of female sexuality or obliterating it by hiding it, the discourse itself “transforms history into nature”, to use Roland Barthes's terminology, naturalizing it as part of a totalizing theological narrative. This is not, of course, to collapse sexuality into the irreducibly metaphysical concept of “power”, but rather to suggest that these related discourses ensure the placing of individual subjects in relation to a state apparatus, one which masks, but which would by no means exclude the issue of the exploitation of one class by another. Thus marriage, which in Much Ado about Nothing is formulated as a “natural” occurrence (“In time the savage bull doth bear the yoke” (I.i.241-2)), becomes the domestic bulwark in the fight against “evil” waged on the terrain of “Christian faith”. “Faith” and “Trust” are important elements in this discourse, as the homily “A Short Declaration of The True and Lively Christian Faith” indicates. Here “inward faith” is described as being: “not without hope and trust in God, nor without the love of God and of our neighbours, nor without the feare of God, nor without the desire to heare God's worde, and to follow the same in eschewing evill, and doing gladly all good workes.”56 Those who perform “evill workes” and who “lead their life in disobedience and transgression or breaking of God's commandments without repentance” inherit, says the homilist, “not everlasting life but everlasting death, as Christ sayeth”.57 By reading these discursive practices “against the grain”, so to speak, we can begin to see how, through “naturalization” of the contradictions of their material history, they conspire to reduce plurality of meaning to a single totalizing narrative which has as its desideratum political quiescence. Don John is a threat because he would return this discourse to the place where its writ of privilege does not run, but in the attempt to “recuperate” him (through physical coercion) the contradictions residing at the heart of the whole ideological apparatus of Messina are laid bare.

Everywhere in Much Ado about Nothing, from the Messenger's initial communication of Claudio's uncle's expression of joy, which “could not show itself without a badge of bitterness” (I.i.21-2) through to Benedick's final utterances in the play, the linguistic sign itself gapes to reveal the material process of its own production. Deception both does and undoes; it can destroy, but at the same time it can produce “honest slanders” which, as Hero ironically observes, “may empoison liking” (III.i.84-6). Moreover, by the time that Hero is in a position to generalize that “Some Cupid kills with arrows, some with traps” (III.i.106), she herself is caught proleptically in the articulation of her own “death”. But analeptically her comment recalls Benedick's earlier encoding of the figure of “blind Cupid” as the sign on “the door of a brothel-house” (I.i.234-5). For Benedick, liking is already “empoisoned” since the institution which Don Pedro assumes will transform the “savage bull” into a willing husband produces also an animal of a very different complexion: “pluck off the bull's horns and set them in my forehead … let them signify under my sign ‘Here you may see Benedick the married man’” (I.i.244-8).58 After the failure of the first Don John plot it is Benedick's female counterpart in “apprehension” who can point to the canker of possessiveness, the “suspicion” or lack of “trust” enshrined at the heart of the notion of civility:

The count is neither sad, nor sick, merry, nor well; but civil Count, civil as an orange, and something of that jealous complexion.


Thus, at the heart of marriage in this play is a difference along whose axis of signification the gendered human subject is constructed; the woman is a “subject” and she “subjects herself” to the authority of father and husband, while her “virginitie”, textualized as “no thing” becomes, not a signifier of female essence, but rather of masculine honour. That woman in the play is positioned in masculine discourse is made clear in Borachio's chilling account of the purpose of the second Don John plot; the “poison” which the villain will temper will make it possible for him “to misuse the Prince, to vex Claudio, to undo Hero, and kill Leonato” (II.ii.28-9). Hero is here, literally, embedded in a masculine discourse, which will be undone when she is undone and which will be reinstated only when her “honour” is re-inscribed.

Against Hero's “subject” positions as daughter to Leonato, and as legitimate object of male affection, we must set Claudio's own constructed subjectivity. He has no independent autonomous “character” as many of his detractors mistakenly assume; rather, he moves through the play from one textual position to another. His military prowess, like that of Benedick, is already inscribed within the “prior textualization” of a masculine honour code, whose domestic inter-subjective manifestation is the discourse of formal courtship within whose boundaries Hero is herself inscribed. Don Pedro locates the smooth transition from soldier to lover: “Thou wilt be like a lover presently, / And tire the hearer with a book of words” (I.i.286-7). By contrast Benedick occupies a contradictory position, accepting the public militaristic discourse of masculine honour but rejecting its domestic inter-subjective analogue; faced with the prospect of encountering Beatrice, he expostulates to Don Pedro:

Will your Grace command me any service to the world's end? I will go on the slightest errand now to the Antipodes that you can devise to send me on; I will fetch you a toothpicker now from the furthest inch of Asia; bring you the length of Prester John's foot; fetch you the hair of the great Cham's beard; do you any embassage to the Pygmies, rather than hold three words' conference with this harpy. You have no employment for me?


This frivolous articulation of the discourse of courtly honour will be re-constituted in much heavier circumstances later in the play, when having been persuaded through a deception to negotiate the contradiction in his own position, Benedick's (I believe) now serious expostulations: “I will swear by it (my sword) that you love me, and I will make him eat it that says I love not you” (IV.i.275-6), and “Come bid me do anything for thee”, are both met with Beatrice's stony imperative: “Kill Claudio!” (IV.i.286-7). Benedick's reluctance to defend “female honour” to the death makes him less than a man, as the now fully “subjected” Beatrice comes to realize:

Princes and counties! Surely a princely testimony, a goodly count, Count Comfect, a sweet gallant, surely! O that I were a man for his sake, or that I had a friend that would be a man for my sake! But manhood is melted into curtsies, valour into compliment, and men are only turned into tongue, and trim ones too: he is now as valiant as Hercules that only tells a lie and swears it. I cannot be a man with wishing, therefore I will die a woman with grieving.


The alleged loss of Hero's honour marks the point of Beatrice's entry into the very discursive formation that she had before resisted, while its re-constitution at the end marks the re-inscription at different levels of ideological practice of the masculine honour of both Claudio and Benedick. The latter's attempted resolution of the inconsistency of his position at the end: “for man's a giddy thing and this is my conclusion” (V.iv.106-7), effects the transformation from “history” into “nature” so characteristic of myth, but by this time the narrative has become a severely troubled one.

We need only to go back a little to find out precisely how troubled the narrative has become. From Claudio's articulation of “prior textualizations” of female beauty as: “a witch / Against whose charms faith melteth into blood” (II.i.169-70), through to Benedick's cynical jibes at cuckoldry, and his mischievous suggestion that Don Pedro may have stolen Claudio's “bird's nest”, it becomes clear that “virginitie” is really a reification of the discourse of an authoritative and paternalist honour. Don Pedro interprets the issue as being one of “trust”, and responds indignantly to Benedick's allegation of theft with: “Wilt thou make a trust a transgression? The transgression is in the stealer” (II.i.210-11). The violation of “trust”—the ideological catalyst which gaurantees political quiescence—through Don John's persistent questioning of Hero's chastity, raises the disturbing spectre of a plurality of meaning which threatens the whole social order, and which renders Hero a plural object: “Even she—Leonato's Hero, your Hero, every man's Hero” (III.ii.95-6). The drama is played out, literally, over the undone body of Hero, which becomes the plural text upon whose surface is inscribed a range of competing meanings that jostle for supremacy. During the relentless deconstruction of the marriage ceremony Hero becomes for Claudio “this rotten orange” who is “but the sign and semblance of her honour” (IV.i.31-2), whose “blush is guiltiness, not modesty” (IV.i.41), and who is translated from a human subject into one of “those pamper'd animals / That rage in savage sensuality” (IV.i.60-1). For Don Pedro the whole issue reflects upon his “honour”: “I stand dishonour'd that have gone about / To link my dear friend to a common stale” (IV.i.64-5), while instead of the legitimate re-naming of Hero as Claudio's possession, her female subjectivity is ruthlessly cancelled: “Hero itself can blot out Hero's virtue” (IV.i.82) leaving her the site of contradiction: “most foul most fair”, and “Thou pure impiety and impious purity!” (IV.i.103-4).

This is a narrativization to which Leonato himself subscribes, as he transforms Hero's body into a “writing”: “Could she here deny / The story that is printed in her blood?” (IV.i.121-2), lamenting her loss of value as a signifier in the masculine discourse of possession:

But mine, and mine, I lov'd, and mine I praised,
And mine that I was proud on—mine so much
That I myself was to myself not mine,
Valuing of her—why, she, O she is fall'n
Into a pit of ink, that the wide sea
Hath drops too few to wash her clean again,
And salt too little which may season give
To her foul-tainted flesh!


Here, in Messina we are offered a glimpse of a society inscribing a body in discourse, constructing a sexuality in historically specific ethical terms. It is because of the inscription of Hero's body within the ethical axis of “good” and “evil” that it can be subjected to an alternative reading; her blushes can be interpreted as marks of “innocence” and “maiden truth”, whose full meaning depends upon another sort of “trust” which can recuperate her body for a theological discourse. Significantly, this reading rests with the Friar:

Trust not my reading nor my observations,
Which with experimental seal doth warrant
The tenor of my book; trust not my age,
My reverence, calling, nor divinity,
If this sweet lady lie not guiltless here
Under some biting error.


It is this recuperative gesture which serves both to foreclose and provoke subversive questioning of the play's discursive structures, thus permitting a thoroughly “interrogative” reading of the conditions of their formation. As if aware of the Pandora's box of discursive possibilities which it has opened up, beyond the text's own powers of conceptualization, a truly dialogic voice is stifled in the play's retreat from those “real questions” of which Pierre Macherey speaks, which would seriously subvert its dominant ideology, proving the closure of the action “always adequate to itself as a reply”.59

Heavily implicated in the whole textual process, while at the same time providing a class perspective on the action are Dogberry and the Watch. Dogberry and his colleagues are the instruments of government in Messina, but their collective inversion of sign and meaning represents an habituation of those self-cancelling devices which mark the discursive strategies of the “dishonour'd” Claudio. For Dogberry goodness and truth are punishable, with the victims having to “suffer salvation, body and soul” (III.iii.1-3), while allegiance and responsibility are the rewards of “desartlessness” (III.iii.9); also, the duty of the Watch is defined negatively: “We will rather sleep than talk; we know what belongs to a watch” (III.iii.37-8), while among the manifestations of Dogberry's “merciful” disposition is his willingness to let the “thief” banish himself: “The most peaceable way for you, if you do take a thief, is to let him show himself what he is, and steal out of your company” (III.iii.56-9). Inscribed in such apparently delightful ineptitude is the sense of an imperfectly learned system of values which are imposed from above. In this respect Dogberry and his colleagues are not unlike Beatrice and Benedick who later ape imperfectly the discourse of romantic love, succumbing as they do to its imperatives but failing to internalize slavishly its discursive practices:

Marry, I cannot show it in rhyme; I have tried. I can find out no rhyme to “lady” but “baby”—an innocent rhyme; for “scorn”, “horn”—a hard rhyme; for “school”, “fool”—a babbling rhyme; very ominous endings! No, I was not born under a rhyming planet, nor I cannot woo in festival terms.


In this respect, though on a smaller scale than that of Beatrice and Benedick, Dogberry and the Watch elicit both ridicule and sympathetic laughter: as representatives of the Law on the one hand, but also as repositories of a popular resistance to its demands on the other. The one is inscribed primarily in the discourse of sexuality, while the other is inscribed in the discourse of class. But they overlap in a surprising way with Dogberry's insistence that as Messina's “subjects” he and his colleagues must be “suspected”: “I am a wise fellow, and which is more, an officer, and which is more, a householder, and which is more, as pretty a piece of flesh as any is in Messina …” (IV.ii.77-9). Here social position and gendered subject are glimpsed through a defensive gesture which asserts hierarchy at the same time as it undermines it. It is upon this precarious balance that the discursive formations of Messina rest. The “flesh”, a metonymy of Man's inheritance after Adam's “transgression” is textualized as a narrative which reproduces its own discursive practices, and it is no accident that the “prior textualizations” which drive Benedick and Beatrice together are, in the conflation of Dogberry's “tediousness” and Leonato's impatient paternalism, the efficient cause of Hero's undoing.

Structurally Dogberry and the Watch occupy a potentially subversive position in the play, seeming to invert the letter of the Law. But even so they, like Benedick and Beatrice, can hardly be said to represent the “other” of official ideology in any Bakhtinian sense. Indeed, they are shown here to be the repository of values which are ultimately re-affirmed in the court of Messina itself. Borachio makes the point bluntly to Claudio and Don Pedro: “I have deceived even your very eyes: what your wisdoms could not discover, these shallow fools have brought to light …” (V.ii.226-9). The result is not a fragmenting, but a universalizing of Messina's ethical and discursive practices, while at the same time acknowledging local social antagonisms within this unified structure. Here, momentarily, the text gapes to reveal a glimpse of hegemony in the making.


It is this unity which Don John challenges, and into whose precariously balanced structures he must be coerced and held as the mark of “transgression”. But we should distinguish the manner of his marginalization from the recuperation, for the play's dominant discourses, of the seemingly independent figures of Benedick and Beatrice. Their admission coincides with the resurrection of Hero, her re-union with Claudio, and the capture of Don John; but even this process of re-inscription cannot be effected without recalling to mind the “other” of discourse itself irrepressibly lodged at the source of meaning as excess. To enter into discourse is to enter into a political semiosis, in which all communicative gestures are harnessed to the process of the production of meaning. In a potentially subversive gesture the merry-hearted Beatrice of Act II counsels Hero to “speak” to the silent (but, we recall, “civil”) Claudio, “or if you cannot, stop his mouth with a kiss, and let him not speak neither” (II.i.292-3).

But this proves no solution to the problem. Indeed, at the end of the play, and now constrained to accept herself the silence which is the modus operandi of the “wife” Innogen, the fully “subjected” Beatrice becomes the victim of her own strategy, as Benedick suppresses her former persona into “silence”: “Peace, I will stop your mouth” (V.iv.97). The gesture is, surely, intended to transcend the treachery of language itself, but Don John, the man who is himself “of few words” has got there before the lovers, drawing this gesture back into the material world of difference where meanings have to be contested. Benedick's gesture both unites and splits the lovers, as evidenced in Count Bembo's disquisition on kissing in Castiglione's The Book of the Courtier:

For since a kisse is a knitting together both of bodie and soule, it is to be feared, lest the sensuall lover will be more enclined to the part of the bodie, than of the soul: but the reasonable lover wotteth well, that although the mouth be a parcell of the bodie, yet it is an issue of wordes, that be the interpreters of the soule, and for the inward breath which is also called the soule.60

This gesture of uniting two “soules” in spiritual bliss is also, paradoxically, a reminder of Man's “transgression”. Thus, Benedick's words of advice to Don Pedro to “get thee a wife! There is no staff more reverend than one tipped with horn” (V.iv.121-2) both extols marriage and at the same time seeks to hold in place through laughter the “transgression” that threatens to deconstruct its “transcendental signified”. Thus, the platonic ideas of unity and harmony based upon a “trust” are defined only in terms of the proximity of their “other”, a “transgression” whose “author” is Don John, and whose image is variously the cuckold, the whore and, most politically subversive of all, the bastard.

At the end of the play it is the “whore”, that signifier of the defamatory “writing” on the body of Hero, who dies. Similarly, it is the bastard, Don John, who is rigorously coerced into the ritual affirmation of a collective solidarity which is aesthetic closure, by exclusion. Indeed, Don John's body will become the site of another “writing”, this time of a promissory and spectacular nature, connected with what Francis Barker has called “the … pageant of sacramental violence”.61 Benedick's final words incorporate this “pageant” into the festive context of the ending itself with his exhortation to: “Think not on him till tomorrow; I'll devise thee brave punishments for him. Strike up, pipers!” (V.iv.125-6). But that process does not clear the path for a progress “through release to clarification”; rather, it constitutes a driving back down into the “political unconscious” of a force that, dispossessed from power, silenced by coercion, and re-inscribed in the pageant of Elizabethan juridical practice, seeks its revenge through the temporary colonization of those discursive practices which struggle to suppress it. Thus, the ending of Much Ado about Nothing offers no momentary perception of Utopia through the mechanism of carnival release; rather, it offers us an insight into a politics of comedy in which those strands which constitute the complex economy of power and pleasure are exposed, only to be concealed again within the naturalizing process of “myth”. The need for such mythologizing would have been rendered still more necessary for an Elizabethan audience when it is remembered that on the throne of England was a monarch who was both the public epitome of virgin “honour” and who, in the view of religious subversives, was the bastard child of Henry VIII.62


  1. Terence Hawkes (ed.), Coleridge on Shakespeare (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1969), p. 122.

  2. A. D. Nuttall, A New Mimesis: Shakespeare and the representation of reality (London: Methuen, 1984), p. 167.

  3. Hawkes, Coleridge on Shakespeare, p. 115.

  4. Pierre Macherey, A Theory of Literary Production (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1978), p. 19.

  5. See James Kavanagh, “Shakespeare in Ideology”, in Alternative Shakespeares, ed. John Drakakis (London: Methuen, 1985), pp. 144-65.

  6. H. B. Charlton, Shakespearean Comedy (London: Cambridge University Press, 1938), p. 226.

  7. John Russell Brown, Shakespeare and his Comedies (London: Methuen, 1957), p. 121.

  8. Richard Henze, “Deception in Much Ado about Nothing”, Studies in English Literature, 11 (1971), 201.

  9. See David Ormerod, “Faith and Fashion in Much Ado about Nothing”, Shakespeare Survey, 25 (1971), 104.

  10. Fredric Jameson, The Political Unconscious: narrative as a socially symbolic act (London: Methuen, 1981), p. 58.

  11. Alexander Leggatt, Shakespeare's Comedy of Love (London: Methuen, 1974), p. 152.

  12. Ibid., p. 183.

  13. Walter Benjamin, Illuminations (London: Collins/Fontana, 1973), p. 258.

  14. V. N. Volosinov, Marxism and the Philosophy of Language (New York and London: Seminar Press, 1973), p. 106.

  15. Dorothy Hockey, “Notes, notes, forsooth …”, Shakespeare Quarterly, 8 (1957), 355.

  16. E. A. M. Coleman, The Dramatic Use of Shakespeare's Bawdy (London: Methuen, 1974), p. 18.

  17. A. R. Humphreys (ed.), Much Ado about Nothing (London: Methuen [Arden], 1981), p. 5.

  18. Ferdinand de Saussure, Course in General Linguistics, trans. Roy Harris (London: Duckworth, 1983), p. 115.

  19. H. H. Furness (ed.), Much Ado about Nothing (London: Lippincott, 1899), p. 2 and p. 58.

  20. Humphreys, Much Ado, p. 77. The figure of “Inogene” the wife of Brutus appears in Spenser, The Faerie Queene, Book II, Canto X, the book in which a version of the story of Much Ado about Nothing appears. See Edmund Spenser: The Faerie Queene, ed. A. C. Hamilton (London: Longman, 1977), p. 261.

  21. See The Faerie Queene, Book IV, Canto X:

    And next to her sate sober Modestie,
    Holding her hand vpon her gentle hart;
    And her against sate comely Curtesie,
    That vnto euery person knew her part;
    And her before was seated ouerthwart
    Soft Silence, and submisse Obedience,
    Both linckt together neuer to dispart,
    Both gifts of God not gotten but from thence,
    Both girlonds of his Saints against their foes offence.

    (Ibid. p. 505)

  22. Catherine Belsey, Critical Practice (London: Methuen [“New Accents”], 1980), p. 42.

  23. Bertrand Evans, Shakespeare's Comedies (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1963), p. 73.

  24. See J. R. Mulryne, Much Ado about Nothing, Studies in English Literature 16 (London: Edward Arnold, 1965), pp. 38ff. See also, Leggatt, Shakespeare's Comedy of Love, pp. 155ff.

  25. Henze, “Deception”, 201.

  26. The evidence for this is located usually in Beatrice's reply to Don Pedro's allegation that she has “lost the heart of Signior Benedick”:

    Indeed, my lord, he lent it me awhile, and I gave him use for it, a double heart for his single one. Marry once before he won it of me with false dice, therefore your Grace may well say I have lost it.


    (Cf. also Christopher Marlowe's poem, Hero and Lender, in The Works of Christopher Marlowe, ed. C. F. Tucker-Brooke (reprinted Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1962), p. 500: “Heroes lookes yeelded, but her words made warre, / Women are woon when they begin to iarre” (lines 331-2).

  27. Much Ado about Nothing, p. 52.

  28. Louis Althusser, Lenin and Philosophy (London: New Left Books, 1971), p. 211.

  29. Michel Foucault, The History of Sexuality, vol. I (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1981), p. 49.

  30. Marilyn French, Shakespeare's Division of Experience (London: Jonathan Cape, 1983), p. 132.

  31. Michel Foucault, Language, Counter-memory, Practice (Oxford: Blackwell, 1977), p. 30.

  32. Ruth Nevo, Comic Transformations in Shakespeare, (London: Methuen, 1980), p. 178.

  33. Michel Foucault, Power/Knowledge (Brighton: Harvester, 1980), pp. 139-40. Dramatically speaking, he occupies a place which is not unlike that which Jonathan Dollimore ascribes to Marlowe's figure of Faustus who is the stimulus for a subversive questioning which is both foreclosed and provoked, although, of course, unlike Faustus, he is never allowed to occupy the central position in the play. See Jonathan Dollimore, Radical Tragedy: religion, ideology and power in the drama of Shakespeare and his contemporaries (Brighton: Harvester, 1984), p. 110.

  34. Political Unconscious, p. 35.

  35. The Works of Christopher Marlowe, p. 498.

  36. See Juliet Dusinberre, Shakespeare and The Nature of Women (London: Macmillan, 1975). See also Catherine Belsey, “Disrupting Sexual Difference”, in Alternative Shakespeares, ed. John Drakakis (London: Methuen, 1985), pp. 168ff.

  37. The Second Tome of Homilies (London, 1595), sig.Gg5r.

  38. Ibid., sig. Gg5v.

  39. Henry Smith, The Sermons of Master H. Smith (London, 1592), p. 2.

  40. Ibid., p. 4.

  41. Ibid., p. 12.

  42. Robert Cleaver, A Godly Form of Householde Government (London, 1598), p. 9.

  43. Homilies, sig. L5r.

  44. See Stephen Greenblatt, Renaissance Self-Fashioning: from More to Shakespeare (Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 1980), p. 186; see especially his account of the destruction of The Bower of Blisse in The Faerie Queene, Book II, pp. 183ff.

  45. Francis Bacon, Essays (reprinted London: Dent [Everyman], 1962), p. 80.

  46. Ibid., p. 25.

  47. Timothy Bright, A Treatise on Melancholy (London, 1586), p. 81.

  48. Michel Foucault, Madness and Civilization: a history of insanity in the Age of Reason (third impression, London: Tavistock, 1977), pp. 76-7.

  49. Peter Laslett, The World We Have Lost (reprinted London: Methuen, 1983), p. 59.

  50. Ibid., p. 154.

  51. Lawrence Stone, The Family, Sex and Marriage in England: 1500-1800 (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1979), p. 106. See also pp. 276-7 on the question of infanticide, though Stone makes no mention of female infanticide.

  52. William Blackstone, Commentaries on The Laws of England, 4 vols. (Dublin, 1769), vol. 1, p. 459.

  53. Ibid., vol. 3, pp. 433ff.

  54. Foucault, The History of Sexuality, p. 107.

  55. See Louis Montrose, “‘The Place of a Brother’ in As You Like It: Social Process and Comic Form”, Shakespeare Quarterly, 32, 1 (Spring, 1981), 28-54; see especially his comments on Shakespeare's exploration of the conditions “in a rigorously hierarchical and patriarchal society, a society in which full social identity tends to be limited to the propertied adult males who are the heads of households” (p. 35). My own conclusions depart radically from Montrose on the question of “subjectivity”, and I cannot accept his conclusions concerning Shakespeare's plays as “reflections” of conflict (p. 54).

  56. Homilies, sig. C8r.

  57. Ibid., sig. D3r.

  58. Cf. Montrose, “The Place of a Brother”, p. 49 on the issue of “Charivari”: “traditionally the form of ridicule to which cuckolds and others who offended the community's moral standards were subjected”.

  59. Macherey, Literary Production, p. 131.

  60. Baldassare Castiglione, The Book of the Courtier (London: Dent [Everyman], 1966), p. 315.

  61. Francis Barker, The Tremulous Private Body: essays on subjection (London: Methuen, 1984), p. 76.

  62. G. R. Elton, Reform and Reformation: England 1509-1558 (London: Edward Arnold, 1977), p. 255.

Richard A. Levin (essay date 1985)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

SOURCE: Levin, Richard A. “Crime and Cover-up in Messina.” In Modern Critical Interpretations: William Shakespeare's Much Ado about Nothing, edited by Harold Bloom, pp. 71-104. New York: Chelsea House Publishers, 1988.

[In the following essay, originally published in 1985, Levin analyzes character interaction in Much Ado about Nothing, considering the unseemly behavior of Don Pedro and Claudio, the developing relationship between Beatrice and Benedick, the scapegoating of Don John, and Leonato's attempt to provide the drama with a happy ending.]

Is Much Ado about Nothing a disturbing comedy? The strongest evidence that it is comes in act 4, when Claudio denounces his bride-to-be at the altar for unchastity. Claudio's conduct on this occasion leaves much to be desired, and other characters also behave poorly, including Don Pedro, Claudio's friend and patron, and Leonato, father of the prospective bride. Though critics often extenuate what they regard as the momentary transgression of Leonato and Don Pedro, Claudio has not escaped so easily. Though the wedding scene exhibits him at his worst, Claudio's overall performance has attracted, as one critic remarks, “a whole thesaurus of abuse.” When Much Ado is reckoned a disturbing play, Claudio is generally the reason.

Yet many critics accept the judgment, offered within the play, that Don John is “the author of all” the mischief that occurs and the other characters are essentially good, though of course not without minor faults or occasional departures from the path of virtue. For example, in describing the opposition between Don John and the others, one critic writes: “The theme of anti-love [is] stitched in dark contrast … upon the bright fabric of love, the theme of sullen negation matched against a society of love and courtesy.” Another critic, however, exemplifies the recent tendency to distribute blame more evenly: “In Messina … we find a dark underside to human behavior, partly because we meet here … conscious human villainy … but partly also because the impulses of the villain sometimes find expression in the behavior of well-intentioned characters as well.” Whether or not Messina's “well-intentioned” citizens have dubious motives depends to a great degree on the extent to which one believes dramatic conventions function to limit the search for plausible psychological motivation. For example, Don John's self-proclaimed dedication to evil perhaps marks him as a stage villain whose raison d'être is to plot against virtue. If he lacks roundedness as a character, he is less likely to be seen as a product of society and a reflection of its faults. Other dramatic conventions function directly to protect the “good” characters. Thus, when Claudio and the others readily lend credence to Don John's accusations against Hero, the play reveals not the weakness of particular characters but the devastating results of slander. Similarly, the ceremonial aspects of Claudio's dirge scene can be taken as symbolic indication that his repentance for Hero's death is more than perfunctory.

I myself am convinced that Shakespeare does allow for a reading guided by such conventions, but I think he also permits a far more rigorous assessment of the characters. That—with the exception of Claudio—Messina has commonly escaped harsh criticism reflects, I think, Much Ado's dependence on social nuances—nuances that, though present in The Merchant of Venice, exist in that play side-by-side with starker effects.

Much Ado consists largely of upper-class conversation among friends and relatives who are at leisure to enjoy one another's company. It has often been noted that their drawing-room conversation anticipates Restoration and eighteenth-century English drama, as well as the novel as practiced, for example, by Jane Austen. It is less often noted that, like the best of his successors, in depicting such conversation, Shakespeare implies a complex set of social attitudes and social pressures. To appreciate the drama that unfolds, the audience must often respond to “impressions” gathered from the conversation, or to small gestures that suggest underlying stresses. At other times, the placid tone of conversation is broken by the more acerbic voice of Beatrice, who, in her role as eiron, punctures the illusions that others live by. I have already discussed [elsewhere] Beatrice's response to the announcement of her cousin's betrothal, beginning, “Good Lord, for alliance! Thus goes every one to the world but I.” Beatrice identifies the social pressure exerted on all the characters who are single and of marriageable age. She thereby helps to identify the temptations they are exposed to in the course of the play. A disruption such as that which takes place at the wedding represents, in my opinion, not the intrusion of an alien force, but tensions that have gradually come to a head. One is ultimately led to question whether Messina has a right to rejoice at the end of the play. As soon as attention shifts from Don John's malevolence to the subtler social forces in Messina, everyone shares a measure of responsibility for all that happens.

When Much Ado opens, Leonato's invited guest, Don Pedro, prince of Arragon, is approaching Messina, and he has sent a messenger ahead with a letter:

How many gentlemen have you lost in this action?
But few of any sort, and none of name.
A victory is twice itself when the achiever brings home full numbers. I find here that Don Pedro hath bestow'd much honor on a young Florentine call'd Claudio.


This brief interchange illustrates the kind of interpretive problem Much Ado often poses. In these first few lines, at least, the audience strongly inclines towards taking at face value the report of a great victory. However, so little is said about the battle that no one can be sure what did happen, and a few of the details leave open other possibilities. Few men were killed, one assumes, because the soldiers fought well—not because they engaged in a negligible skirmish. And presumably “none of name” died because the nobility fought valiantly—not because the nobility avoided its responsibility to lead troops into battle. No explanation of the military action preceding the opening of the play is ever forthcoming, and perhaps Leonato's unconcern should be ours; yet Beatrice seems to comment on his omission when she raises sceptical questions about the battle.

In paraphrasing the messenger, Leonato makes an outright error when he speaks of a victory with “full numbers” (overlooking the losses among the lower sort), or else his words are supposed to be taken as gnomic wisdom—but even then application of his proverbial saying would mean that he counts the losses of the lower sort as insignificant. Leonato's attention then turns to news of Claudio. The written text does not make clear why Claudio is significant to him, but in view of the flirtation that has already gone on between Claudio and Hero (1.1.296-300), it may be that Leonato reads with a wink for his daughter; he has marriage in mind for her. Why is Don Pedro writing that he has “bestow'd much honor” on Claudio? In thus honoring Claudio, has Don Pedro sought to please Leonato? Leonato asks for no explanations. (The Elizabethans might have thought of what Lawrence Stone calls “the inflation of honors,” the military knighthoods Essex conferred, for example.) The messenger (in a passage not quoted) starts to elaborate, but his language is so flowery that nothing can be gathered from it; he even seems to mock Leonato's lack of curiosity by concluding that Claudio “hath indeed better bett'red expectation than you must expect of me to tell you how” (ll. 15-17). Leonato does not pursue the subject and he soon makes a remark that helps to expose him as a complacent man, not eager to make more than superficial judgments. Upon hearing from the messenger that Claudio's uncle wept upon getting news of his nephew's safe return, Leonato comments: “There are no faces truer than those that are … wash'd” with tears (ll. 26-27). Leonato's trust in tears is a detail Shakespeare will draw on later (4.1.154).

Beatrice now interjects herself, as if dissatisfied with the desultory pace of the conversation. Her uncle has taken care to note Claudio's survival; she wants to know whether Benedick, the man who interests her, has returned. Her manner of questioning sets her apart from her uncle, however; she asks the messenger penetrating questions, probes him about what Benedick has achieved—and not achieved—in battle. She is openly dubious about his accomplishments. She concludes, for example, that his “good service … in these wars” consists of his having helped to eat “musty victual.” Nor is Beatrice merely a gadfly; her questions, she implies, arise from her own uncomfortable experiences with Benedick; she questions not only his bravery and his intelligence, but his capacity for friendship: “He wears his faith but as the fashion of his hat: it ever changes with the next block” (ll. 75-77). Beatrice has well-developed suspicions about Benedick's nature and implies that she will take no husband who does not meet high standards. Nevertheless, in bringing Benedick into the conversation, Beatrice perhaps wishes to indicate that she, like her cousin, may marry some day. She is certainly put under pressure to conform. Leonato quickly disparages her independence. Benedick will “be meet with you,” he reminds her, and then he chides her about her professed imperviousness to love: “You will never run mad, niece.” “No, not till a hot January,” is Beatrice's robust reply, but later she may compromise her standards.

Though just a few lines into the play, currents beneath the surface of conversation are becoming evident. Ostensibly Leonato and his family have merely undertaken to entertain guests. Actually, everyone waits expectantly for the arrival of bachelors and for the beginning of a time for courtship.

Upon entering, Don Pedro greets his host: “Good Signior Leonato, are you come to meet your trouble? The fashion of the world is to avoid cost, and you encounter it” (ll. 96-98). Is Don Pedro grateful for Leonato's “trouble,” or is he observing Leonato's excessive hospitality, the care haute bourgeoisie takes with aristocracy? Later Don Pedro calls himself a “charge,” and he responds to Leonato's wish that his stay will be a long one by saying, “I dare swear [Leonato] is no hypocrite” (l. 151)—insisting a little too much, so it seems, that Leonato has no ulterior motive. Don Pedro apparently mistrusts Leonato's courtesy.

A few details suggest that Don Pedro's discomfort has something to do with the expectation that courting will follow his arrival. Although he has visited frequently, he seems not to recognize Leonato's daughter, and he recovers himself only to offer an awkward compliment, likening Hero's appearance to her father's (ll. 104, 111-12). Don Pedro's subsequent response suggests a stage direction; his attention is on Claudio, whose eyes are on Hero. As Don Pedro exits with Leonato, he still watches Claudio and notices him staying behind and beckoning Benedick to join him. As quickly as Don Pedro can, he extricates himself and goes to seek Claudio and to inquire after his “secret” (1.1.202-4). Evidently he guesses that Claudio is inclined to marry.

I believe we gradually come to entertain a hypothesis about Don Pedro. Born and bred a prince, elegant in dress and manner, he seems to embody the social values held dear in Messina. Yet he has never married, though he is possibly somewhat beyond the age at which most men do. Knowing that he will never court and knowing, nevertheless, that all thoughts in Messina will turn to marriage, he brings with him, as a well-trained guest, valuable presents—two eminently eligible bachelors, on one of whom, a count, he has newly bestowed “honor.” Don Pedro seems eager to adapt himself to conventional life—indeed, is eager to promote conventional values. Nevertheless, no man is selfless; in exchange he will ask that his efforts to help others be appreciated. Leonato's overeager reception already disturbs him. Don Pedro's affection for Claudio will pose another challenge.

Before Don Pedro reenters, Claudio discloses his interest in Hero to Benedick. Claudio is sensitive to the expectations of the society around him. He has learned that when a soldier is home from the war, it is time to fall in love. He also knows that Hero is the right kind of girl for him—well-born, pretty, and wealthy. Only one more question needs to be answered, and he asks it of Benedick immediately: “Is she not a modest young lady?” (l. 165). Claudio wants to make certain that his marriage will be an asset and not a hindrance. His reasons for wanting to marry, and the promptness of his decision, show him as a rather conventional young man, without any special depth or complication of character.

Though Don Pedro anticipated a time of courtship, he is overtaken by the speed of events. He enters to discover that not only has Claudio already confessed his love, but he has chosen Benedick, not the prince, as his confidant. When Don Pedro asks to hear Claudio's “secret,” Benedick, taunting Claudio, quickly discloses it. Claudio equivocates: he loves Hero “if [his] passion change not shortly” (l. 219). Don Pedro immediately senses Claudio's timidity and reassures him; “The lady is very well worthy.” “You speak this to fetch me in,” Claudio responds, but Don Pedro reaffirms his opinion. In supporting Claudio, Don Pedro fulfills the role he set for himself. On the other hand, Don Pedro has acquired information that at some point could be used destructively: Claudio mistrusts his own judgment, and is very much concerned to find a wife highly regarded by others.

Don Pedro wants to be alone with Claudio. However, Benedick will not leave; quite the contrary, he makes peacock display of himself, boasting that he will “live a bachelor.” Don Pedro, quickly irritated, tells Benedick that he will soon “look pale with love” (l. 247). The prince implies that Benedick is only posing as a “tyrant” to the female sex; behind the mask lies a man almost as ready for marriage as Claudio. Whether Don Pedro is right or not is still unknown. However, his own resentment suggests that for him bachelorhood is painful in a way it is not for Benedick. Don Pedro's greater vulnerability—as courting gets underway—soon becomes more apparent. After trying politely to draw the conversation to a halt, he invents an errand for Claudio. Irritated, Benedick leaves with a parting retort. Using a metaphor from dressmaking, he says that Don Pedro's discourse is ornamented with loosely attached trimmings that may come off to reveal his real concerns (ll. 285-89). Benedick hints at the deceptiveness of Don Pedro's elegant surface.

As soon as Don Pedro and Claudio are alone, the latter turns for help, as Don Pedro apparently hoped he would:

My liege, your Highness now may do me good.
DON Pedro:
My love is thine; teach it but how,
And thou shalt see how apt it is to learn
Any hard lesson that may do thee good.


While Claudio addresses Don Pedro as a prince who is in a position to do him a favor, Don Pedro answers affectionately. He says that his “love” stands ready to learn any “hard lesson” Claudio asks of him. As the nature of Claudio's request is already obvious, Don Pedro comes very close to saying that he will find it distressful to help Claudio to a wife. Don Pedro's words are rarely, if ever, regarded as intimate, and it is true that the word love is common between male friends in the Renaissance. In context, however, “love” at least hints at an unusually strong emotion that Claudio does not reciprocate. In Elizabethan English, “apt” sometimes means “apt for love” and not simply “ready” or “prepared”; Don Pedro rather than expressing his passion directly, will sublimate it in an act of sacrifice for Claudio.

Don Pedro is still very much a mystery at this point in the play because, unlike Claudio, his relationship to established social patterns is undefined. His deliberate disclosure of affection for Claudio, which he could easily have avoided making, invites speculation about his motives. If he is not simply candid, he may be manipulative, either attempting to discourage Claudio from marrying, or, far more likely, thinking to strengthen their attachment so that Claudio's subsequent marriage will impose less of a separation. I am suggesting a possible parallel with The Merchant of Venice. When Bassanio asks his older friend, Antonio, for the money that will allow him to woo Portia, Antonio expresses his “love” for Bassanio and promises to do his “uttermost” to raise the money. Later, in Bassanio's presence, he readily agrees to the ominous terms of Shylock's loan. Both older men cannot resist accommodating their younger friends in the hope that gratitude will help strengthen the relationship.

Claudio not only fails to reciprocate; he disingenuously avoids acknowledging anything of what Don Pedro has implied. He wants nothing to divert him from the matter at hand: “Hath Leonato any son, my lord?” Critics have debated whether Claudio's inquiry into the financial side of marriage is appropriate. Shakespeare seems to me to go to some lengths to show Claudio's interest as excessive. He wants to learn about more than Hero's dowry; what will she inherit? he asks. Like Claudio's earlier inquiry concerning Hero's “modesty,” he reveals here the desire for a socially advantageous marriage. A little voice speaks to Claudio, “prompting” him, telling him that when war ends, it is time for love: “war-thoughts” are gone, he says, and “in their rooms / Come thronging soft and delicate desires” (1.1.302-3). Claudio's is not the language of authentic passion—he is not “apt,” to use Don Pedro's word. The voice Claudio hears is society's, encouraging him to fall in love and marry.

Another way to judge Claudio is through Don Pedro's eyes. Don Pedro sees that Claudio prepares to gather for himself all that society can offer. Don Pedro knows what voice Claudio listens to, and finally says to him: “Thou wilt be like a lover presently, / And tire the hearer with a book of words” (ll. 306-7). The words flow too freely to be Claudio's; he has been reading from the “book” left open for young men when they return from war (cf. l. 311). Don Pedro has a right to be irritated, and therefore his offer is all the more commendable: he will speak to Leonato on Claudio's behalf.

Claudio, however, resumes the “treatise” he had begun to tell. “How sweetly you do minister to love,” he tells Don Pedro, imagining him as the idealized older patron of romance. At this point, Don Pedro's mood shifts. He breaks in with: “What need the bridge much broader than the flood?”—that is, Claudio's is a familiar human need that does not warrant excessive fuss. Then Don Pedro, without explanation, substitutes a new and far less straightforward scheme for helping Claudio to his bride.

At a masked dance that evening, Don Pedro will disguise himself as Claudio and woo Hero for him. The change in plan invites close scrutiny. Don Pedro is perhaps conscious of three motives. He will help his young friend. He will encourage in him a feeling of gratitude. And third, he will find for himself a role on an occasion when his own failure to woo would otherwise be noticeable. But does the plot also show Don Pedro unconsciously finding a channel for destructive emotion, were he to wish to release it? He goes so far as to imply that were he not wooing for Claudio, he might have an interest of his own in her: in Hero's “bosom I'll unclasp my heart, / And take her hearing prisoner with the force / And strong encounter of my amorous tale” (ll. 323-25). He could make Claudio jealous, if he chose. The scheme will also keep Claudio and Hero apart, thus preventing a firm relationship from growing up between them.

I have argued that to understand all the action seen so far one needs to recognize that the time to marry has arrived in Messina. Claudio responds to the pressure very directly; Benedick less directly; Don Pedro most indirectly of all. So far, only slight signs have appeared that the strain will overwhelm anyone.

Having watched how social forces influence others, we are prepared to see them at work in Don John, who is now introduced. He announces at once: “I cannot hide what I am” (1.3.13); then he declares himself “a plain-dealing villain” (l. 32). For some critics, a self-revelation this emphatic settles the matter: Don John is a pure figure of evil, “a thing of darkness out of step with his society,” who “hates the children of light simply because they generate radiance in a world he prefers to see dark.” If this description is correct, then Much Ado approaches melodrama by artificially dividing the good from the bad characters. I believe, on the other hand, that Don John should not divert us from the evil within society, and to make this point, Shakespeare shows that Don John is shaped by the same social forces that mould others.

When he announces himself a villain, he is not alone—he speaks to Conrade—and by this time in the play one looks beneath the surface of drawing-room chatter. Even Don John's handling of language shows him to be as conscious of himself as a social being as anyone in the play. He makes elegant use of balance and antithesis—in the following sentence, for example: “I am trusted with a muzzle, and enfranchis'd with a clog, therefore I have decreed not to sing in my cage” (ll. 32-34). Certain inferences may be drawn from the things Don John does tell Conrade, and more information is forthcoming.

Conrade opened the scene by asking Don John, “Why are you thus out of measure sad?” Don John answers evasively by referring only to “the occasion.” Context, however, defines the “occasion” as the same one that distresses Don Pedro—Leonato's preparations for an evening of dance and courtship. This explanation is soon confirmed. When Borachio, another member of Don John's retinue, enters, he tells Don John that he comes with news “of an intended marriage.” Don John replies: “What is he for a fool that betroths himself to unquietness?” Here is a statement with strong feeling behind it!

Although the play terms them “brothers” and both enjoy the rank of prince, Don John is apparently a bastard and he and Don Pedro half brothers. Each surrounds himself with two male followers: Don John with Conrade and Borachio, and Don Pedro with Claudio and Benedick. Alliteration, syllabication, and accentuation connect the two groups of names. Like Don Pedro. Don John is distinguished from his retinue by his lack of interest in courting a woman. While Benedick and Claudio woo, Borachio resumes a liaison with Margaret. When Beatrice remarks that Don Pedro does not make himself available to women, she links the two brothers: “Your father got excellent husbands, if a maid could come by them” (2.1.324-25).

In analogues and sources for Much Ado, two friends are in love with the same woman, and the Don John figure plots to separate his friend from the lady and so obtain her for himself. Don John, of course, has no such motive. He offers as many motives as Iago does, and it is probably as treacherous to choose among them; about all we can say for sure is that he lives in a world of men and focuses his resentment on them. To speculate a little further, however, Don John and Don Pedro both focus their attentions on Claudio, though Don John's emotions are hostile while his brother's are not. Don John initially welcomes the opportunity to contrive against “that young start-up [who] hath all the glory of [his] overthrow” (1.3.66-67). Later, Don John works to drive a wedge between Claudio and his royal patron. At the end of the dance, Don John, recognizing the masked Claudio, informs him that Don Pedro has wooed for himself (2.1.164). Later, when Don John enters to report Hero's “disloyalty,” he contrasts his brother's effort to effect the marriage with his own effort to protect Claudio (3.2.95-100). Whether Don John is a bidder for Claudio's affections or simply the young man's enemy is not easy to say.

In many accounts of Much Ado, Don Pedro and Don John are held to be of opposing natures, even if they superficially share certain traits, such as a love of intrigue. G. K. Hunter, for example, contrasts the “blind self-interest of Don John” with the “social expertise of Don Pedro.” Robert G. Hunter says bluntly: “Don Pedro's function is to create love. Don John's is to destroy it.” I am suggesting instead that the “melodramatic” distinction between the brothers becomes blurred, so that we are prepared to see some of Don John's ill will in his brother. One villain is not merely substituted for another, however, because Don Pedro, unlike his brother, is woven into a complex social pattern; his complicity makes the problem of guilt in the play far subtler than it seemed when Don John first announced his villainy.

Act 2 opens after the dinner with Beatrice holding forth about marriage. Her society, of course, believes strongly in marriage; she asserts contrary views:

I will even take sixpence in earnest of the berrord [bearward, animal keeper], and lead his apes into hell.
Well then, go you into hell.
No, but to the gate, and there will the devil meet me like an old cuckold with horns on his head, and say, “Get you to heaven, Beatrice, get you to heaven, here's no place for you maids.”


Proverbially, old maids lead apes to hell, while mothers, led by their children, go to heaven. Beatrice, however, places the married folk in hell, presumably because of their misery and because they sin, not only in taking lovers, but in marrying when they ought not to. Beatrice, who never talks idly, is wondering about her own predicament and Hero's, and she raises a question for the audience to keep in mind: are the marriages in Much Ado well-advised?

Beatrice's feelings about marriage are more complicated than she admits. After all, she is very much a part of Leonato's household, which she amuses with her clever remarks. Also, it soon becomes apparent that she has introduced Benedick and marriage into the conversation because Hero's prospects are already a subject of discussion. Beatrice, as at the opening of the play, asserts her own romantic interest, albeit in an indirect manner. She evidently feels the same pressure to marry that the other single people feel.

It is greatly to Beatrice's credit that she does not try to discourage her cousin, though Hero seems destined to go to the altar first. Overheard conversation has led Leonato to conclude that Don Pedro plans to woo Hero in the evening, and Leonato instructs his daughter to be ready. With a generosity Benedick has not shown Claudio in comparable circumstances, Beatrice simply cautions Hero against undue haste (ll. 69-80). In these and other circumstances, Beatrice emerges as a person of stature.

The dance and its aftermath prefigure later events, although the potential for trouble is not yet realized. At the dance, others conclude that Don Pedro courts on his own behalf, and the few overheard words make us wonder whether he encourages the misapprehension. When he begins to dance with Hero, he alludes to his real identity, beneath the mask: “Within the house is Jove” (2.1.97), then he whispers: “Speak low if you speak love.” While Claudio apparently suspects Don Pedro because of what Don John tells him, Benedick forms suspicions on his own. When he alludes to them, Don Pedro studiously avoids understanding him, and then denies the allegations and throws Benedick on the defensive about another matter, his insulting behaviour to Beatrice. Shortly afterwards, Don Pedro carefully vindicates himself before the assembled household: “Here, Claudio, I have woo'd in thy name, and fair Hero is won” (ll. 298-99). He seems relieved to prove himself loyal to Claudio, as if the doubts others form about his motives make him doubt them too.

Claudio, for his part, acts inexcusably. Unlike Benedick, Claudio knew beforehand that Don Pedro danced with Hero so that he could woo her for him. Yet Claudio quickly succumbs to Don John's ploy and loses faith in his friend. Claudio replaces one romantic story with another; now “beauty is a witch / Against whose charms faith melteth into blood” (2.1.179-80). Claudio's real feelings are revealed when he says, “let every eye negotiate for itself, / And trust no agent” (ll. 178-79). As one critic remarks, Claudio feels “duped in a bargain.” He appreciates neither Don Pedro nor Hero, whose loss disturbs him only as it affects his self-respect.

When Beatrice and Benedick begin to dance with one another, she may well be ready to be courted, but instead, Benedick insults her. Benedick is masked; Beatrice, possibly, is not. Benedick, believing himself undetected, takes advantage of the opportunity to trim Beatrice's sails, telling her that he has heard that she “was disdainful” and “had [her] good wit out of the ‘Hundred Merry Tales’” (2.1.129-30). Beatrice's intelligence and humor are too much for Benedick's male pride, and she takes offense, as well she should. Beatrice, who does recognize Benedick beneath his mask, describes him as “the Prince's jester, a very dull fool,” and says that his only “gift is in devising impossible slanders.” This criticism of Benedick is especially telling because it describes Benedick as he behaves with her at this moment.

Because a question has arisen about Benedick's merit, special importance is to be attached to the following interchange between Benedick and Beatrice as the music resumes and they begin to dance:

We must follow the leaders.
In every good thing.
Nay, if they lead to any ill, I will leave them at the next turning.


This dialogue is symbolic. Both Beatrice and Benedick set themselves up as superior to the others around them—they will make independent moral judgments and not simply “follow the leaders.” Only time can determine whether they are as good as their word.

After the dance, both have an opportunity to take out their hurt on others. Benedick does so. Believing that Don Pedro has wooed for himself, Benedick seeks out Claudio and taunts him. Ironically, he sees Claudio's vulnerability but not his own: “Alas, poor hurt fowl, now will [Claudio] creep into sedges. But that my Lady Beatrice should know me, and not know me!” (2.1.202-4). Nor is Benedick through. When Don Pedro enters looking for Claudio, Benedick admonishes the prince for betraying his friend. Then, rebuked for insulting Beatrice, he can only see how she has “misus'd [him] past the endurance of a block.” When she enters, he pretends not to notice her, and calls her a “harpy” (l. 271).

Beatrice acquits herself better. Speaking privately with Don Pedro, she is remarkably candid. She admits that she had once given Benedick her heart, but he betrayed her (2.1.278-82). Then she indicates that she has come to a decision; she will not be “the mother of fools” (l. 286)—that is, she no longer wants to marry Benedick. Realizing that her feelings have been hurt, the viewer does not know whether to believe her, but her judgment may be sound—she might be wise to sit out this dance and wait for another suitor.

Beatrice acts even more commendably when Claudio enters and, in the presence of everyone, Don Pedro announces that “fair Hero is won.” Claudio is silent, and Beatrice prompts him: “Speak, Count, 'tis your cue” (l. 305). She understands that although Claudio has chosen to take part in a play, his moment has come and he has nothing to say. Like Claudio, Hero also lacks words—each lacks sufficient knowledge of the other. Beatrice wittily but generously gives Hero her part: “Speak, cousin, or (if you cannot) stop his mouth with a kiss.” Beatrice tries to live through the happiness of Claudio and Hero.

Only when Claudio greets Beatrice as his “cousin” does she reveal her real feelings. Though she is witty, her exclamation, “Good Lord, for alliance!” is heartfelt. She knows that society exerts pressure from which she is not immune. Therefore her resolve not to marry Benedick may weaken.

Beatrice is not the only observer deeply affected by the engagement of Hero and Claudio. Don Pedro has been silent. He watches Beatrice admiringly and sympathizes with her—up to a point. Suddenly he responds to her wish for “alliance” by saying, “Lady Beatrice, I will get you one [a husband].” His impulse is in part a generous one, but his tone is complex. With the verb “get,” which is crude, and the impersonal “one,” Don Pedro indicates that Beatrice's need is a common one and may be met readily. He hints that despite her pretensions, Beatrice is willing to conform.

Beatrice replies to Don Pedro with intelligence as well as wit:

I would rather have one [a husband] of your father's getting. Hath your Grace ne'er a brother like you? Your father got excellent husbands, if a maid come by them.


Beatrice pays Don Pedro a compliment that she knows he will value. She says that he is attractive to women, and but for his high birth, she herself would aspire to marriage with him. On the other hand, by repeating Don Pedro's equivocal words, “get” and “one,” Beatrice calls attention to them and to his enigmatic role as a matchmaker. Then she raises an implicit question; why is Don Pedro never available to women, never a suitor in his own right?

Don Pedro escapes with exceptionally clever repartee. He offers himself in marriage: “Will you have me, lady?” I do not think this proposal sincere. Beatrice and Don Pedro are engaged in witty dialogue. Don Pedro well knows that the others present regard Beatrice and Benedick as a likely match, and he would not again invite the suspicion that he lets his own interests intrude. He expects his audience to see that he has set himself before the finicky Beatrice, inviting her to refuse in a clever fashion. Of course, Don Pedro also wants his proposal to suggest to others that were he not so generous, he might well seek Beatrice's hand for himself.

As is her custom, Beatrice refuses to be merely clever in her reply:

No [she declines the prince], unless I might have another [husband] for working-days. Your Grace is too costly to wear every day. But I beseech your Grace pardon me, I was born to speak all mirth and no matter.


Interpreted in one way, the remark is complimentary. Beatrice pictures the prince as he likes to see himself, set apart by his special elegance, “too costly to wear every day.” But Beatrice's words also suggest that Don Pedro is permanently excluded from the “alliance” of marriage. She describes herself and the prince as well-matched for Sundays—both superior souls, both alone—but not as suitable life companions, because an invisible but seemingly uncrossable line separates them. This line may be the one that separates the heterosexually inclined from the homosexually, but such terminology is too coarse for Shakespeare's delicate and perhaps evasive portrayal.

The moment is a poignant one. Beatrice and Don Pedro had seemed for a moment to enjoy an intimacy; then decisive differences emerge. After their interchange, each is again left alone to deal with relentless social pressures.

Beatrice, realizing that she has been indiscreet, hastily apologizes. Though the prince graciously reassures her, his reaction is soon seen to be complicated. When Leonato saves Beatrice further embarrassment by sending her on an errand, Don Pedro alludes to a new scheme, designed to bring Beatrice and Benedick together. Both schemes divert attention from Don Pedro's own failure to woo. But are in part the product of generous impulses, the first towards Claudio, the second towards Beatrice, who will be helped to the happiness denied Don Pedro himself. However, Don Pedro's introduction of both schemes comes accompanied by language denigrating romance; if Beatrice and Benedick can be brought into a “mountain of affection,” then, Don Pedro assures his listeners, “Cupid is no longer an archer; his glory shall be ours, for we are the only love-gods” (ll. 385-86). Don Pedro's wit should not conceal that “love-gods” have dangerous powers. Don Pedro's scheme will create a precarious situation. Beatrice will be led to think Benedick loves her, and Benedick to think Beatrice loves him. The product of a lie, their courtship may easily be disturbed. Even as the scheme gets put into motion, it will create another danger. Like the earlier scheme, it keeps Claudio and Hero apart (Beatrice will overhear the women, and Benedick the men). Claudio, therefore, will be at Don Pedro's side when the prince demonstrates that love is only an illusion.

Having considered Don Pedro's motives for proposing the scheme, we can return to the question of why it is received so enthusiastically by his audience. Leonato does not seem to understand that “melancholy” lies beneath Beatrice's “merry” surface (ll. 341-46), so his participation in the scheme is not entirely to be explained by his interest in her well-being. Indeed, he delights to think how soon Beatrice and Benedick would be bickering: “If they were but a week married, they would talk themselves mad” (ll. 353-54). It is Don Pedro's satiric description of Benedick and Beatrice brought into a “mountain of affection” that brings Leonato to life: “My lord, I am for you, though it costs me ten nights' watchings.” Claudio quickly provides an echo: “And I, my lord.” Hero chimes in: “I will do any modest office, my lord, to help my cousin to a good husband.” Her earnestness betrays the real motive of the three of them. Beatrice and Benedick are aloof and superior; the conventional world wants to bring them within its orbit.

The prosecution of the scheme helps confirm this inference. When Benedick overhears their conversation, the men take advantage of the opportunity to deflate his pretensions. Hero's remarks, overheard by Beatrice, are even more illuminating. Hero criticizes Beatrice, who is “odd, and from all fashions” (3.1.72), and “turns … every man the wrong side out, / and never gives to truth and virtue that / Which simpleness and merit purchaseth” (ll. 68-70). Shakespeare wittily gives Hero a chance to praise “simpleness.” Though in her father's own household, she has been eclipsed by her cousin and she does not like it. Beatrice is far more generous with her than she is with Beatrice.

In quick succession, Beatrice and Benedick overhear that they are loved and declare in soliloquy not only their love for one another but their desire to marry. Beatrice and Benedick are therefore not indifferent to what others say about them and to the pressure to conform—the contrast between Beatrice and Benedick on the one hand and Hero and Claudio on the other gradually comes to seem less sharp. Many critics nevertheless do tend to maintain the distinction, arguing that while Hero and Claudio become engaged only because to do so is expected of them, Beatrice and Benedick are well matched and merely need a slight push toward marriage. By giving them names that alliterate, Shakespeare has certainly invited us to think of Beatrice and Benedick as a pair. They also have certain traits in common. Both, for example, hold themselves aloof from society and by means of verbal wit display a sense of superiority. Beatrice and Benedick are also undoubtedly attracted to one another, and they spar together in order to disguise affection, as Leonato implies: “There is a kind of merry war betwixt Signior Benedick and [Beatrice]; they never meet but there's a skirmish of wit between them” (1.1.61-64). Leonato nevertheless underestimates the importance of the tension in their relationship.

The distance Beatrice and Benedick maintain allows each of them to examine what he or she finds disturbing in the other. Beatrice's doubts arise from questions about Benedick's moral character. I have already mentioned one among several somewhat obscure allusions to a past incident or incidents; Benedick apparently betrayed the intimacy that had grown up between Beatrice and himself (in addition to 2.1.278-82, see 1.1.39-42, 120-23, and 144-45). Such suspicions about Benedick are supported by his reputation as a ladies' man (see, e.g., 1.1.109-10). This trait, on which Benedick prides himself, helps to explain the reservations he has about Beatrice: she withholds admiration. Benedick complains to her: “It is certain I am lov'd of all ladies, only you excepted” (1.1.124-25). At the dance, he criticizes her “wit”; Benedick would like a wife as intelligent and as attractive as Beatrice, but he would like her to defer to him.

The problems in their relationship point to important differences between their characters. Only Beatrice is a genuine critic of society—Benedick's satirical remarks are often made to get attention; only Beatrice has self-knowledge—Benedick denies his susceptibility to social pressure; and only Beatrice is generous—Benedick resents the successes of others, as when he taunts Claudio after Claudio discloses his interest in Hero. Beatrice's greater worth is subtly caught in the contrast between their soliloquies after they are trapped.

When Claudio and Hero became engaged, Beatrice frankly admitted her loneliness. After she eavesdrops and learns how others criticize her and how Benedick loves her, her response is put in ten succinct lines (of verse). She rebukes herself sharply: “Contempt, farewell, and maiden pride, adieu!” (3.1.109). And she promises to turn over a new leaf—she will “tam[e her] wild heart to [Benedick's] loving hand” (l. 112). Were Beatrice not so desirous of marrying, she might be less inclined to accept hearsay evidence and she might hesitate to subordinate herself to Benedick. Though her new humility has its attractive side, she is perhaps too eager to sacrifice the moral independence she has held dear; Shakespeare, we note, has Beatrice express herself in rhyme of rather pedestrian character, not up to her usual standards.

Benedick soliloquizes both before and after eavesdropping. The first speech shows that, unlike Beatrice, he has not admitted to himself his desire for marriage. He portrays himself as a satisfied bachelor who will not stir himself until he finds the perfect woman (2.3.26-35). Benedick protests too strongly. Ever since Claudio disclosed his desire to marry and Benedick responded by claiming that Hero's beauty was exceeded by Beatrice's (1.1.190-92), Benedick has been keeping a careful eye on his friend's advance to the altar. Benedick describes him as “Monsieur Love” (2.3.36) and criticizes his clothes and affected speech (ll. 15-21). “May I be so converted?” he wonders (l. 22), inadvertently revealing his wish to imitate Claudio.

Benedick's second soliloquy is an important guide to the man who emerges in the latter part of the play. Unlike Beatrice, he has no suspicions whatever, though he has more reason than Beatrice to suspect treachery, for Don Pedro has promised to see him “look pale with love.” Benedick believes what he hears because he wants to marry. He quickly concludes that if she loves him, her love “must be requited” (2.3.224). In other words, he has a moral obligation to her. As the speech develops, Benedick elaborates on the righteousness of his change of course. His need to justify himself is explained by his fear—“they say I will bear myself proudly” (2.3.225). And he does bear himself proudly; quite unlike Beatrice, Benedick is brimming with pride when he learns he is loved. Benedick also worries because he has loudly vaunted his independence. He begins to work out his defense: “Happy are they that hear their detractions, and can put them to mending.” This has the desired moral ring, but is not quite splendid enough. “Doth not the appetite alter,” he now suggests, as if he were a philosopher of human nature. Finally, he reaches for the grand: “The world must be peopled.” Critics have occasionally quoted these lines out of context and made them the moral of the play. But Benedick has really trailed off into banal sophistry—“When I said I would die a bachelor, I did not think I should live till I were married.”

Having wrapped himself in a moral cloak, he is ready to adopt the utterly conventional role of the lover. At least one earlier critic likened him to Malvolio, for in his next appearance, he cuts a ridiculous figure, newly shaven, absurdly dressed, and perfumed. Like Malvolio, he fails to appreciate the joke on himself. In spite of Benedick's pretensions, he is proving himself an ordinary young man.

So far I have discussed social pressures in Messina and the urge characters have to conform and make others conform. On the other hand, no decisive test has yet arisen. One may entertain doubts about a character, but one cannot clearly fault anybody. Don Pedro, the most vulnerable character, also happens to be critically placed to influence events, for he is respected by everyone. Until a day before the marriage, the good in him prevails, a situation symbolized by the control he imposes over Don John. Now, with Claudio's marriage imminent, Don Pedro begins to break.

When Don Pedro arrived in Messina, he promised a stay of “at the least a month” (1.1.149). Act 3, scene 2 opens with Don Pedro announcing a change in plans:

DON Pedro:
I do but stay till your marriage be consummate, and then go I toward Arragon.
I'll bring you thither, my lord, if you'll vouchsafe me.
DON Pedro:
Nay, that would be as great a soil in the new gloss of your marriage as to show a child his new coat and forbid him to wear it.

The desire to leave Messina merely testifies to Don Pedro's growing discomfort. However, his decision to communicate his plans to Claudio represents an important weakening of his resolve to do well by Claudio. A first inclination may be to say that Don Pedro merely wishes to remind Claudio, in the words of a famous sonnet, “to love that well, which thou must leave ere long.” While this is presumably Don Pedro's only conscious purpose, his apparently simple statement probes for the answer to two questions. By indicating that he will leave on Claudio's marriage day, Don Pedro asks whether his friend realizes that marriage alters all of a man's previous relationships, even his relationship to a patron. In choosing the verb “consummate,” Don Pedro asks whether Claudio keenly anticipates the joys of the marriage bed. Claudio's disingenuous offer to accompany Don Pedro after the wedding ceremony answers both of the prince's questions—Claudio does fear losing a patron and the sexual allusion makes him uneasy.

Don Pedro thinks to respond with harmless and traditional kidding of the prospective groom. Actually, he addresses not only Claudio's sexual embarrassment, but his fears about the future. Don Pedro says that to the betrothed, marriage wears a “gloss.” By leaving Messina, Claudio would “soil” this gloss. In advising him against leaving, Don Pedro implies that marriage loses its “gloss” soon enough anyway. There is a comparable implication in Don Pedro's words when he goes on to compare Claudio's anticipation of marriage and its sexual pleasures with the anticipation a child has for a new coat that gains more than its intrinsic value by being withheld. Simply to compare Claudio's emotions to a child's is to undermine his sense that marriage is a mark of maturity. To compare Claudio to a child awaiting a new coat that will soon become an old coat is to make him wonder whether his judgment is sound. In due course, Don Pedro implies, Claudio will discover the “soil” on his marriage—but by then, he may have lost what he once he had for a certainty, Don Pedro's patronage.

Apparently sensing that he is headed in a dangerous direction, Don Pedro suddenly breaks off. He decides to tease Benedick, who has swallowed the bait laid for him and now stands before them dressed in the latest fashion and an image of vanity. Inevitably—because Don Pedro has a score to settle with Benedick—his teasing soon comes very close to taunting. Benedick, he says, looks ridiculous, outfitted as he is not in one smart style but in a mixture of all the modish foreign styles of dress. Nevertheless, this attack on Benedick is more dangerous because it inadvertently allows Don Pedro to send Claudio a destructive message. Claudio himself is newly concerned with “carving the fashion of a new doublet,” as Benedick said earlier (2.3.17-18)—he must be almost as absurdly dressed as his friend. By teasing Benedick and inviting Claudio to join him, Don Pedro in effect asks Claudio whether he wants to be a foolish young lover or the companion of an urbane and elegant prince.

The belief that young lovers are as foolish as their fashionable clothes represents Don Pedro's last line of defense, and Benedick now deprives him of his consoling thought. When Don Pedro and Claudio slyly argue over whether Benedick is in love, it is no accident that Don Pedro puts the negative case, asserting that there is “no true drop of blood” in Benedick (3.1.18-19). Benedick delivers a stunning refutation of Don Pedro's allegation. He proudly says to Leonato: “Walk aside with me, I have studied eight or nine wise words … which these hobby-horses must not hear” (ll. 71-73). That Benedick remains unperturbed testifies to the emotional strength the mere illusion of love gives the lover; Don Pedro registers shock: “For my life, to break with him about Beatrice.” Suddenly, Don John enters as the tempter and says with grim irony, “My lord and brother, God save you!”

Like many great temptations in Renaissance literature, the success of this one depends on the predisposition of those tempted. Claudio, in his desire for a marriage that will bring him honor, has long been concerned to know that Hero is “modest.” He has now been made to feel that for an uncertain future he may forego Don Pedro's assured patronage. The prince has gradually succumbed to his own fear of the isolation that will follow the loss of Claudio to marriage. Finally, the temptation has been prepared for by showing that Don Pedro takes pride in the support he has given Claudio and society in general; he will not consciously be false to his ideals, but he may be easily convinced that he should protect Claudio from a marriage that will disgrace him.

When Don John announces that he has news showing the marriage to be ill-advised, Don Pedro puts himself forward as Claudio's protector. Then, when Don John accuses Hero of being “disloyal” (3.2.104), the prince waits until Claudio inquires of him: “May this be so?” “I will not think it,” Don Pedro replies. Even to the modern ear, his words imply that only his magnanimous mind stands against a sea of evidence. In Elizabethan English, the verb think distinguishes mental process from external reality, as in Hamlet's observation, “There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so” (2.2.249-50). Claudio catches Don Pedro's insinuation and quickly promises to watch at Hero's window. Then Don Pedro concludes, “O day untowardly turn'd!” and Claudio echoes him, “O mischief strangely thwarting!” (ll. 131-32). At this point, Claudio clearly contemplates shaming Hero in the church, and Don Pedro indicates a willingness to back him (ll. 125-27). Thus it is not surprising that later they both believe not only Don John's flimsy visual evidence, but the totally unsubstantiated charges about how Hero has already met her lover “a thousand times in secret” (4.1.94).

In the Bandello novella that is a probable source for Much Ado, Sir Timbreo (Claudio's equivalent), though hardly an admirable person at this point in the story, quietly repudiates Hero in a private communication sent to her father. By moving the scene into the church, Shakespeare not only creates effective theater; he puts Claudio and Don Pedro into a far worse light. Claudio allows Hero and her family to anticipate the marriage and then he suddenly insults her, in the harshest terms: “Give not this rotten orange to your friend,” he tells the shocked father (4.1.32). Pouring forth a torrent of abuse, Claudio depicts himself as a pathetic and larmoyant victim of woman's “savage sensuality” (l. 61). If he can be seriously thought of as a rounded human character (as I think it likely), this catalogue of stereotypical abuse is an index of a lava of desires that as a proper young suitor he has been forced to repress; towards Hero he has shown only “bashful sincerity and comely love” such as “a brother to his sister” shows (ll. 53-54). “You are dishonorable, not me,” he seems to insist in the church.

Don Pedro justifies his role by claiming that he acts reluctantly and only because his protégé has been wronged. Yet he, no less than Claudio, tries to inflict maximum pain. He waits until a critical moment, then instructs Claudio to “render [Hero] again” to her father. “Sweet Prince, you learn me noble thankfulness,” is Claudio's deeply ironic response (l. 30). That Don Pedro has become the teacher confirms his failure to master the “hard lesson” Claudio once asked of him. Don Pedro also speaks with devastating effect when Leonato, innocently trustful, turns to him: “Sweet Prince, why speak not you?” Then Don Pedro does speak: “I stand dishonor'd, that have gone about / To link my dear friend to a common stale” (ll. 64-65). The audience knows the prince is wrong and perhaps even senses complacency.

As Hero faints, and is perhaps thought to be dying, the three parties leave, in a final gesture of contempt: Don John, followed by Don Pedro and Claudio. Those who remain at Hero's side—Leonato, Beatrice, Benedick, and the friar who was to have performed the wedding ceremony—now have their moral fiber tested. They are concerned for Hero's life, outraged at the treatment she has received, and doubt (at least) that the charges against her are true. The friar—a figure partially detached from the society—provides exemplary faith in Hero's innocence, having noticed her “thousand” innocent blushes when her crimes were named. Beatrice also behaves admirably. She cries out in alarm when Hero falls, gives her comfort when she begins to stir, and testifies, to her innocence: “Oh, on my soul, my cousin is belied!” (l. 146).

Leonato, on the other hand, at once takes the accusations to be true: “Would the two princes lie, and Claudio lie?” he asks (l. 152), showing his limitations: he is a superficial man, unable to imagine that a contradiction might exist between exalted rank and inner worth. But while his credulity is forgivable, his vanity and self-absorption are more serious faults, since they lead him to heinous behavior. When Hero begins to stir, he tells her: “Do not live” (l. 123). Better she had been a changeling, he says, so that now, “smirched … and mired in infamy” as she is, he would not need to acknowledge her as his own daughter. Of course the harshness is intended to be an index of the severity of the charge and the importance of the code presumed violated. And yet as Leonato strings up what seems like a declension of first person personal and possessive pronouns, a note of self-centeredness is very clear in his lament: “Mine I lov'd, and mine I prais'd, / And mine that I was proud on, mine so much / That I myself was to myself not mine, / Valuing of her” (ll. 136-39). Leonato had “valued” his daughter as a flattering possession; the marriage he desired for her—to a count with royal connections—was to redound to the credit of his family, indeed, to his credit. Once Hero suffers “shame,” he wants “no part” of her. Leonato's words are among the harshest any father in Shakespeare speaks to his child, and the harshest in all the comedies. Leonato is not an evil man, but his values are questionable.

Though Leonato and Hero respond to the crisis in almost opposite ways, both declare themselves unambiguously; on the other hand, Benedick's reaction puzzles. At first it seems that his remaining in the church reflects a moral decision to dissociate himself from his former friends and commit himself to the wronged family. But though Benedick is sympathetic, he continues to describe Don Pedro and Claudio as possessing his “inwardness and love” (l. 245), and he is noncommittal about the allegations against Hero: “I am so attir'd in wonder, / I know not what to say” (ll. 144-45). A satisfactory explanation for Benedick's presence has yet to emerge.

When Leonato, Hero, and the friar leave the church, Beatrice and Benedick remain. Shakespeare has cunningly planted a temptation for them. Having not been alone together since falling in love, they now have an opportunity to court, but under circumstances when their primary obligation should certainly be to Hero and not to themselves.

Benedick begins by comforting Beatrice, trying (for the first time) to sound convinced of Hero's innocence: “Surely I do believe your fair cousin is wrong'd” (ll. 259-60). Beatrice rightly sees that Benedick is making a tentative approach to her, and she wants to encourage him, at the same time that she contrives to prevent their “alliance” from conflicting with her loyalty to Hero. Beatrice shrewdly answers Benedick by remarking: “Ah, how much might the man deserve of me that would right” Hero (ll. 261-62). Then when Benedick volunteers to be that man, Beatrice tells him: “It is a man's office, but not yours.” She goads Benedick to prove his valor, while also implying that he must choose whether he is committed to his friends or to her family. Benedick promptly takes Beatrice's hint and renounces one allegiance by declaring another: “I do love nothing in the world so well as you.” They quickly drop mention of Hero and talk of love.

Eventually the conversation does return to Hero, but only because Benedick moves out of his depth. Though Beatrice has asked him to avenge her family, Benedick cannot conceive how disturbed Beatrice is both by the wrong done her cousin and her own present neglect of Hero's cause. Benedick's ignorance and his penchant for the grand gesture lead him to present himself as a knight errant ready to prove his worth to his ladylove: “Come, bid me do any thing for thee” (l. 288). Though initially cautious when they spoke of love, Beatrice had gradually been swept along on a tide of enthusiasm; hearing these words, however, she remembers the Benedick of old, a man of many words but little faith. Instinctively, she challenges him to meet her highest expectations: “Kill Claudio.” Taken completely by surprise, Benedick exclaims: “Ha, not for the wide world.”

Beatrice now must make a choice. She can accept Benedick as he is, or repudiate him, or attempt to have him see with her eyes. She seems to end the interview, but her witty reply betrays her: “You kill me to deny it [i.e., the request]. Farewell.” Benedick detains her, and she stays, but not without confronting him with the reasons for her anger:

Is [Claudio] not approv'd in the height a villain, that hath slander'd, scorn'd, dishonor'd my kinswoman? O that I were a man! What, bear her in hand [deceive with false hopes] until they come to take hands, and then with public accusation, uncover'd slanders, unmitigated rancor—O God, that I were a man! … Princes and counties! Surely a princely testimony, a goodly count, Count Comfect, a sweet gallant surely! O that I were a man for his sake! or that I had any friend would be a man for my sake! But manhood is melted into cur'sies, valor into compliment, and men are only turn'd into tongue, and trim ones too. He is now as valiant as Hercules that only tells a lie, and swears it.

(4.1.301-6, 315-22)

Of interest is the fact that Beatrice focuses her indictment of Claudio not on his decision to break the engagement, but on his way of disrupting the wedding ceremony. It would seem that she has detected beneath his mincing manner a sadistic urge that led him to calculate Hero's humiliation. Beatrice has measured the man; she realizes, as Leonato does not, that titles may mislead. Claudio is nothing more than a “sweet gallant,” a spoiled young aristocrat. Beatrice widens her view to encompass Don Pedro and Don John—they have provided “princely testimony,” she remarks bitterly—and then broadens her scope still further to take in all of “manhood” as she has observed it in her society. She sees that an ostentatious display of courtesy hides the absence of real courtesy; honor comes at a risk; better to guard one's social position and simply appear honorable.

Beatrice speaks with the authority she has gradually accumulated since the opening scene, in which she sought to discover the reality everyone else was busy to ignore. She interprets the repudiation of Hero as more than an isolated event; she sees it as confirming doubts she has long entertained—not necessarily specific doubts about specific people, but a general suspicion that extrinsic and intrinsic honor have become confused in her society. Though Beatrice's tirade is delivered in the heat of passion, it nevertheless contains, I believe, a core of truth.

The church scene tests and exposes a society in miniature. In Don Pedro, Claudio, and Leonato grievous flaws are uncovered, and in Beatrice and Benedick, potentially significant weaknesses. At the bitterest moments during the scene, one might complain with Berowne in Love's Labour's Lost that Jack hath not Jill and the play nothing resembles a comedy. Yet this scene has several hints that Jack will have Jill, and the following scene contains more. The friar, making an attempt to comfort Leonato, suggests a ruse: the family should pretend that Hero is dead; he hints at a miraculously happy outcome and goes so far as to say, “this wedding-day / Perhaps is but prolong'd” (ll. 253-54).

The interview between Beatrice and Benedick also gives strong indications that this match will go forward. Then in the second scene of act 4, Dogberry enters with the nightwatchmen and their prisoners, Borachio and Conrade. The audience already knows that the nightwatchmen overheard a drunken Borachio confess the details of Don John's plot to Conrade. Disclosure of the plot was delayed only because Leonato was in haste to join the wedding party and because he and Dogberry, equally self-important personages, spoke at cross-purposes. However, the sexton proves an efficient investigator. Already informed that Don John has fled the city, he quickly ascertains the nature of his crimes. It seems likely that at least a considerable portion of the blame will light on Don John; if it does, Don Pedro and Claudio may be reconciled to Leonato and the planned marriage may yet go forward. By the end of act 4, therefore, Shakespeare has not left great doubt about the externals of the plot.

Act 4 has, however, raised questions about the “inward changes” which will be the focus of the last act. The characters all have another test to confront. They have a chance to redeem themselves and prove worthy of the celebration that lies in the offing. Or they can merely resume the rush to the altar, once their knowledge of Don John's crime permits him to serve as their scapegoat.

Specific questions about individual characters have emerged during act 4. In suggesting his ruse to Leonato, the friar predicts that “slander” will change to “remorse” when the princes and Claudio receive news of Hero's death (l. 211). Of Claudio, in particular, the friar says that “if ever love had interest in his liver,” and regardless of whether Claudio continues to believe Hero guilty, knowledge of her death will make him regret her loss and contemplate the beauties in her life (ll. 222-33). If the friar is right, Claudio will gain an appreciation for Hero that he has never had, and Don Pedro will recommit himself to true courtesy.

The friar also helps to establish the test facing Leonato. Shocked by Leonato's loss of faith in Hero, the friar urges on him belief in his daughter's innocence. Although Leonato at first rejects the suggestion, he eventually admits the possibility. He is still more concerned with his own dignity than with Hero's plight, however. When he promises revenge against the princes and Claudio if they are guilty, he seems eager to impress others that he is not a man to be trifled with (ll. 190-200). He lacks all conviction about who is at fault, and he eventually agrees to follow the friar's plan by saying: “Being that I flow in grief, / The smallest twine may lead me” (ll. 249-50). About all that can be said in favor of Leonato is that for the moment he accepts the advice of well-intentioned people: he remains susceptible to beneficent influences.

Beatrice and Benedick also have yet to prove themselves. That they will eventually marry there is little doubt. But will they, as a couple, exert moral authority? If others do not, will they at least call Don Pedro and Claudio to account? From their relationship thus far, an answer to this question probably depends on the answer to another: Will Benedick defer to Beatrice's greater wisdom, or will she gratify Benedick by accepting the subordinate role?

In the course of act 5, the anticipated justification for a celebration develops: major blame for the slander of Hero is attributed to Don John. Whether the audience accepts this interpretation of events depends in part upon the judgments it made in the earlier acts; if viewers were critical, they will find ample reason for remaining so. The sequence of the act itself invites suspicions. The first three scenes immediately follow the interrupted wedding; the last scene takes place the next morning. In other words, in a trice of time, the march to the altar resumes. Has an adequate investigation taken place, or has Messina chosen Don John as a scapegoat in order to remove an impediment to marriage?

Doubts about Leonato's character are kept alive by his conversation with his brother, Antonio, at the beginning of act 5. Leonato takes no comfort in Hero's survival; nor does he once regret the harsh words he spoke to her. His concern is still not his daughter's suffering, but his own, which, however, he expresses in hyperbolical language that cannot possibly represent true passion. No father has grieved as he grieves, and no father “so lov'd his child” (5.1.8)—a preposterous claim, one might think. In everything Leonato says, he implies a subtext: “I'm an important person who has been affronted.” Leonato acts the lordly paterfamilias who feels sorrows inaccessible to his brother. When Don Pedro and Claudio enter, the two brothers foolishly compete to show greater concern for the insult the family has suffered. A. P. Rossiter describes them as “two old men lashing themselves back into a youthful fury.” First Leonato, then Antonio, challenges Claudio, as if each is trying to outdo the other. The challenges bring to the fore a question about Leonato's motives. By maintaining the fiction of Hero's death, Leonato leaves open the friar's suggestion, that Don Pedro and Claudio will seek a rapprochement with him. For all Leonato's bluster, he does not break decisively with the men who slandered his daughter.

As soon as Leonato learns from the sexton of Don John's flight, he confronts Don Pedro and Claudio, ironically calling them “a pair of honorable men” (l. 266) who should include Hero's death among their “high and worthy deeds” (l. 269). Leonato seems stern, but he has a ruse in mind. Responding to the offers of Don Pedro and Claudio to do penance, Leonato turns to the latter and asks him to go to Hero's grave that evening, where he should hang an epitaph on her tomb and sing a dirge (ll. 284-85). Then, as if requesting further restitution, Leonato instructs the men to return to his home the next morning, at which time Claudio should marry his niece.

Leonato's easily accomplished penance may merely reflect the dramatist's desire for a quick and happy denouement. Shakespeare has added one detail, however, that raises a question about Leonato's motives. Leonato states very carefully that his “niece” is sole heir to both himself and his brother (l. 290). As Claudio is a man interested in inheritances, Leonato's purpose seems clear: he has long ago decided that Count Claudio, with his royal connections, would make a good son-in-law, and he now wishes to consummate the union between the young man and his daughter.

The behavior of Claudio and Don Pedro in act 5 makes it difficult to believe that they undergo the reformation Leonato fails to require. The friar had expected Don Pedro and Claudio to repent upon hearing of Hero's death; instead they enter to taunt the father and uncle of the woman presumed killed. Don Pedro needles Leonato by curtly walking by him with the comment: “We have some haste” (5.1.47). Claudio puts his hand on his sword, then denies he would give Leonato's “age such cause of fear” (l. 56). Claudio and Don Pedro have continued their downward spiral. Don Pedro had been a model of courtesy until the church scene, during which he struck out at society, at the hated institution of marriage. When Don Pedro finds that no punishment is forthcoming and that he even retains Claudio's companionship, his habitual control partially breaks down, and he exercises a kind of drunken freedom. Of course, as royalty, Don Pedro knows how to hint antagonism and suggest a course for Claudio to follow, while he himself avoids an open, irreconcilable break with Leonato. Claudio, for his part, is no longer the well-behaved young man who arrived in Messina. He throws off the constraints he accepted when he sought Leonato's favor and becomes the snob Beatrice thought she detected in the church.

It is not until Leonato and his brother leave that Don Pedro and Claudio have a chance to express their full contempt for their host. As soon as Benedick enters, they tell him that, “We had lik'd to have had our two noses snapp'd off with two old men without teeth” (ll. 115-16). This remark earns a rebuke from Benedick, who then delivers his challenge to Claudio. At this point, Claudio and Don Pedro join in uncontrollable jesting at Benedick's haughty manner. Even after Benedick discloses in a parting comment news of Don John's flight, Claudio and Don Pedro continue to laugh at Benedick's pretensions, though Don Pedro, at least, knows it is time for him to be serious (ll. 203-5). When Dogberry enters with his prisoners, Borachio and Conrade, the prince amuses Claudio by parodying the foolish constable's speech. Only Borachio's somber confession gives Don Pedro pause:

DON Pedro:
Runs not this speech like iron through your blood?
I have drunk poison whiles he utter'd it.


These lines suggest that residual levity may remain in both men, for Don Pedro describes how the news affects him by using a figure of speech that Claudio, as if amused, develops in his reply. Don Pedro's remark shows him distancing himself from the crime in still another way, as Horace Furness noticed: “How gracefully and adroitly the Prince evades all responsibility by the use of this ‘your’ instead of our!” Don Pedro makes another deft move. Guilt is still too close to him if he leaves it with Claudio, since the two have been constant companions. Therefore the prince gets Borachio to confirm that Don John instigated the plot, then emphatically describes his brother as “compos'd and fram'd of treachery” (l. 249). Don Pedro anticipates the use others will make of his brother; yet the prince, as well as anyone, knows Don John's evil nature. Rather than making a new discovery, Don Pedro merely finds a way to extenuate his guilt.

When an apparently angry Leonato accuses Don Pedro and Claudio, they say they are contrite; they are undoubtedly shaken by the discovery of Hero's innocence, yet they do not fully confront the wrong they have done. After offering to do penance, Claudio adds, “yet sinn'd I not, / But in mistaking” and Don Pedro (content on this occasion to be Claudio's echo) adds, “By my soul, nor I” (5.1.274-75). Their wrongdoing hardly seems merely a matter of having trusted the treacherous Don John. Nor is it only their reluctance to accept guilt that is disturbing. Don Pedro appears to patronize Leonato: “To satisfy this good old man, / I would bend under any heavy weight / That he'll enjoin me to” (ll. 276-77). And although Claudio with tears embraces Leonato's offer of his niece in marriage, he does so immediately following mention of the double dowry; is he partly moved by the sudden opportunity to restore himself to good social standing?

The dirge scene resolves none of the doubts that have arisen about the “inner changes” the two men have experienced. Shakespeare might easily have created the impression of protracted mourning by beginning the scene in medias res. Instead, the scene opens with the arrival in the churchyard of the two men and several musicians and singers. Claudio reads the epitaph and asks the singers to render a “solemn hymn” (5.3.11). Claudio fulfills Leonato's directions, doing no less—and no more—than was asked of him. Alexander Leggatt notices that Claudio's grief is expressed only through “external forms,” never in personal terms, but argues that “formal expressions of feeling have their own kind of value.” The scene remains ambiguous, however, because the reality that lies behind Claudio's willingness to conform to social rituals is questionable. The few words that Don Pedro and Claudio exchange between themselves lack a convincing indication of sorrow.

Even in the final scene Don Pedro and Claudio seem curiously detached from the suffering they think they have caused. When the men arrive at Leonato's, Don Pedro smartly teases Benedick, recalling to him his boast that he would die a bachelor. Claudio, still taking his cues from Don Pedro, elaborates upon the joke (5.4.40-47). Claudio has been accused of “flippancy,” and rightly, I think. Asked whether he is prepared to fulfill his promise to marry Antonio's daughter, he replies, “I'll hold my mind were she an Ethiope” (l. 38). Then, when the masked women approach, he turns from Benedick, saying, “Here comes other reck'nings. / Which is the lady I must seize upon?” (ll. 52-53). The remark is not very gracious, to say the least. Claudio acts as if he feels compelled to go through with the wedding, but regards the situation as disagreeably beneath his dignity.

Beatrice and Benedick display in act 5 the willingness to compromise moral principle anticipated in their church interview. Benedick has already challenged Claudio in a pompous manner that makes it hard to take at face value the moral earnestness he alleges. His lack of gravity is amply illustrated when he searches for Beatrice to report having made the challenge. He has been writing sonnets—poor stuff, he admits—while insisting that in other ways, he is a “deserving” lover (5.2.29-41). Beatrice enters to ask: “What hath pass'd between you and Claudio?” “Only foul words—and thereupon I will kiss thee.” Benedick's answer shows him unwilling to be serious and eager to divert Beatrice. As in the church interview, Beatrice feigns a departure, then engages in love talk.

Only a chance comment from Benedick brings to the surface Beatrice's underlying reservations. When Benedick casually remarks upon the extension of their accustomed repartee into the period of their courtship by saying, “Thou and I are too wise to woo peaceably” (l. 72), Beatrice's reply introduces unexpected caution: “It appears not in this confession; there's not one wise man among twenty that will praise himself.” Benedick will not be gainsaid, however; he answers that in the present day and age, a man with a free conscience should be “the trumpet of his own virtues” (ll. 85-86). Promptly taking his own advice, Benedick testifies that he himself is “praiseworthy.” Beatrice answers never a word, for she has learned her uncle's lesson at last: “Niece, thou wilt never get thee a husband, if thou be so shrewd of thy tongue” (2.1.18-19).

A servant suddenly brings Beatrice and Benedick news:

It is prov'd my Lady Hero hath been falsely accus'd, the Prince and Claudio mightily abus'd, and Don John is the author of all, who is fled and gone.


Once, in an outraged voice, Beatrice had shown Benedick that, regardless of whether Don Pedro and Claudio thought Hero guilty, they treated her abominably. Neither Beatrice nor Benedick wish to remember the resolve they made then. Their one desire is to rush off and join Hero and Claudio in a double wedding.

By now properly investigating the crime that took place and by accepting perfunctory repentances, the family is able to celebrate two marriages, as it has long desired to do. Audience response to the celebration is shaped by the decision arrived at about the real nature of the crime. I have yet to consider the light shed on this event by one possible accomplice, Margaret, Hero's “waiting gentlewoman.”

Margaret and Borachio are apparently lovers (2.2.12-14). In suggesting a plot to Don John, Borachio confidently assumes Margaret's willingness to disguise herself as Hero in order to decoy Claudio into thinking his fiancée is unfaithful (2.2.41-50). Subsequent evidence suggests that Borachio may have judged Margaret correctly. The night before the planned wedding, the nightwatch overhears Borachio describe the incident that just took place. He says that he called Margaret Hero and that Margaret answered to that name from her chamber-window and bid him “a thousand times good night” (3.3.147-48). Later Margaret is said to have dressed in Hero's garments (5.1.238). When Leonato finally gets the information gathered by the nightwatch, he questions Borachio about Margaret. Borachio, however, testifies that she “knew not what she did when she spoke to” him (5.1.301). Still suspicious, Leonato interrogates Margaret; at the opening of 5.4, in Margaret's presence, Leonato settles upon a somewhat different account from the one Borachio offered—she acted not unwittingly, but “against her will” (5.1.5). Leonato exonerates her and she is included in the celebration.

The critics have been satisfied with Leonato's verdict. They dismiss the evidence against Margaret, arguing either that it is too trivial to notice in performance or that it represents something other than Shakespeare's final intention, the survival from a source for the play, perhaps, or an earlier version of Much Ado itself. One wonders, however, whether the strength of the evidence is sometimes overlooked because it raises a question about the adequacy of Leonato's entire investigation and thus about the conventionally happy close of the comedy.

Margaret has a motive for the crime: resentment against her social betters. Margaret shows her character most fully when she helps Hero dress for her wedding (3.4). Margaret treats Hero as a spoiled rich girl. As Hero fusses over her clothes and seeks the attention she feels is her right on this occasion, Margaret first makes her uncomfortable about the choice of a ruff, and then obliquely deprecates Hero's gown by comparing its simplicity with the duchess of Milan's more lavish garment (ll. 14-23). Finally, Margaret shows up the prim and proper Hero by making a coarse allusion to marital sex. Hero rebukes her:

Fie upon thee, art not asham'd?
Of what, lady? of speaking honorably? Is not marriage honorable in a beggar? Is not your lord honorable without marriage?


This excerpt perhaps makes a difficult passage more difficult; yet the drift of Margaret's remark is clear. She alludes to Heb. 13.4 (a passage incorporated in the Anglican marriage service), where marriage is declared “honorable in all.” Margaret implies a contrast between the equality enjoined on man in the Bible and the inequality introduced by social distinctions: Hero's lord is “honorable without marriage”—he is the honorable Count Claudio. In the social world in which Margaret and Hero live, honor is achieved not by making any marriage but by a “good” marriage. Later, in a bawdy exchange with Benedick, Margaret expresses the desire for a marriage that will not leave her “below stairs” (5.2.10). Margaret has no such marriage in prospect, and she resentfully watches Hero's nuptial approach.

Margaret behaves, in fact, as if she might indeed have participated in the plot the previous evening and now sought to justify in her own mind the damage about to ensue. Whether or not Margaret did indeed conspire with Don John and Borachio the play does not demonstrate. Instead, Shakespeare uses Margaret to help develop the dark background against which Messina moves toward marriage. Margaret makes it harder to think of Don John's evil as singular; he emerges more clearly as part of a social context that includes characters in the mainstream of society.

It is difficult to maintain a sharp distinction between “good” and “evil” characters in the play. Don Pedro's destructive urge does not originate in Don John. The bastard prince succeeds because he is, in part, the destructive side of Don Pedro and the side that comes to prevail. In like manner, it is also possible that even without both princes, Claudio might have denounced Hero as he did. By putting his question to Benedick about Hero's chastity in the negative, he reveals that doubt already has a place in his mind: “Is she not a modest young lady?” Finally, Leonato's tirade against his daughter results from emotions elicited, but surely not caused, by the particular set of circumstances brought about by Don John's plot.

The enemy is within the gates of Messina. Beneath a thin veneer of civility, Messina is an anxious and insecure world where the men “hold their honors in a wary distance” (Othello 2.3.56). Uneasy about their social position, anxious to advance their fortunes, the characters keep a watchful eye, and as soon as they perceive danger, push cordiality aside. A quarrel almost develops after the dance, then flares out at the wedding. If the characters felt strong affection for one another, once the heat of the moment passed they would begin to seek a reconciliation; instead, acrimonious exchanges and challenges open act 5. The characters quarrel until Don John's flight makes it possible to think of marriage again; then they hastily conclude peace. Yet the celebration cannot wholly obliterate the tensions that surfaced. Benedick and Claudio exchange verbal blows with their old gusto until Benedick remembers that he must leave Claudio “unbruis'd” because through marriage they are about to become “kinsmen” (5.4.111).

Don Pedro is of course not part of the “alliance” concluded at Leonato's home, and the limits of kindness in Messina can be measured by the treatment accorded him. He is a foreign prince who had once been extended every courtesy. When he does not marry and fails as a matchmaker, he is no longer necessary to the household, though he is too important and too closely tied to Claudio to exclude or even treat with outright rudeness. The text of the play nevertheless provides hints (which can be developed in performance) that he is made subtly uncomfortable. When Don Pedro and Claudio offer to make restitution, Leonato gives instructions only to Claudio, although he does invite both men back to his home. When the men return, Don Pedro interjects himself into the conversation two or three times, but is not otherwise noticed until the last lines of the play. By this time, Benedick, pleased that he is marrying (as he thinks) despite social pressures, usurp's Leonato's role as master of ceremonies, even countermands Leonato's order that the wedding should precede the festivities; then he addresses Don Pedro, now neglected and silent:

Prince, thou art sad, get thee a wife, get thee a wife.
There is no staff more reverend than one tipp'd with horn.


This is the taunt of an insecure man. Even as Benedick goes to the altar, he needs to reassure himself by making Don Pedro feel left out. Benedick exhibits the hostility that has been part of Messina throughout the play and that helps to explain—though it does not excuse—the destructive acts of Don Pedro and the conspirators who malign Hero.

Criticism: Overviews And General Studies

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

SOURCE: Humphreys, A. R., ed. Introduction to The Arden Shakespeare: Much Ado about Nothing, by William Shakespeare, pp. 1-84. London: Methuen, 1981.

[In the following excerpt, Humphreys surveys the principal literary sources for Shakespeare's Much Ado about Nothing.]



Stories of the lover deceived by a rival or enemy into believing his beloved false are widespread and of great antiquity. An analogue of the Claudio-Hero plot has been traced back to a fifth-century Greek romance by Chariton, Chaereas and Kallirrhoe. Seventeen Renaissance versions, narrative or dramatic, are recorded before Shakespeare's, in Spanish, Italian, French, German, and English. They include the fifteenth-century Spanish Tirant lo Blanch (Tirant the White) by Juan Martorell, which probably lies behind Ariosto's version in the fifth canto of Orlando Furioso (1516).1 Ariosto's lovers are named Ariodante and Genevra. His story, first translated into English and much elaborated in Peter Beverley's poem, The Historie of Ariodanto and Ieneura (c. 1566),2 was further translated by Sir John Harington as Orlando Furioso in English Heroical Verse (1591). From Ariosto, Spenser derived his own very different version, which ends in disaster instead of the lovers' reunion; it tells how Squire Phedon, deceived by his supposed friend Philemon into thinking his adored Claribell disloyal, falls into the intemperance of killing her (The Faerie Queene, 1590, II.4.xvi-xxxviii.)

Meanwhile Matteo Bandello, the Italian ecclesiastic, diplomat, and man of letters, treated the subject in his own way in the twenty-second story of La Prima Parte de le Novelle (1554), naming his lovers Sir Timbreo and Fenicia. A French translation, morally and rhetorically elaborated, appeared as the eighteenth tale of the third volume of François de Belleforest's Histoires Tragiques (1569).

Versions in English other than those mentioned comprise, possibly, a ‘matter of Panecia’ (i.e. Fenicia?) play performed by the Earl of Leicester's Men at Court on New Year's Day 1575 but no longer extant,3 and, more evidently, an Ariodante and Genevra (also not extant), done likewise at Court, on 12 February 1583, by Merchant Taylors' schoolboys under their humanist headmaster Richard Mulcaster.4 Other analogues or sources comprise George Whetstone's story of Rinaldo and Giletta, incorporating elements of Ariosto and Bandello in The Rocke of Regard (1576: see Appendix I.ii), and two plays, one—Victoria—in Latin (c. 1580-3) by Abraham Fraunce, the other—Fedele and Fortunio, The Two Italian Gentlemen—in English (1585) by one M. A. (Anthony Munday?).5 Both are versions of a highly reputed comedy, Il Fedele, by Luigi Pasaquaglio (1579). In this, the would-be seducer Fedele, unable to win his desired Vittoria (who, though married, is enamoured of his rival, Fortunio), traduces her to her husband Cornelio and arranges that Cornelio shall see a servant (in love with her maid, like Borachio with Margaret in Much Ado) enter the house and court a supposed Vittoria. Cornelio, gulled, plans to poison his wife, but by a trick she mollifies Fedele and escapes her fate. With many variations as to its intrigues the story was widely popular, varying in tone from farce or Plautine comedy to tragedy.


Ariosto, translated by Harington in 1591, tells how the brave Renaldo, ‘Of noble chivalrie the verie flowre’ (V. 82), arrives in Scotland and learns that the Scottish princess Genevra must die accused of unchastity unless a champion comes forward to defend her. Resolving to do so he makes for the court at St Andrews and on the way saves a woman from murderous assailants. She is Genevra's maid Dalinda and she tells him that the princess is innocent.

Dalinda has been in love with Polynesso, Duke of Albany, and he has often met her secretly in Genevra's room, ascending by a rope ladder; Polynesso, nevertheless, has aspired to marry Genevra herself. But she loved the noble Ariodante, and was equally loved. Polynesso's desire for Genevra turning to hatred, he plotted to destroy the lovers' hopes. Though posing as Ariodante's friend, he arranged that Dalinda (who had ‘no reason, nor no wit, / His shamefull drift (tho' open) to perceaue’; V. 26) should dress herself as her mistress and admit him by night; he then placed Ariodante and the latter's brother Lurcanio where they could see him enter Genevra's window. The deception succeeded. Horrified, Ariodante disappeared, intending to drown himself, though in fact (unknown to anyone) having jumped from a cliff he thought better of it, swam ashore, and remained incognito. Lurcanio accused Genevra of unchastity, and she has been doomed to death.

To remove the unwitting accomplice Dalinda, Polynesso then planned the murder from which Renaldo has saved her. The two travellers reach St Andrews and Renaldo prepares to fight for justice. He finds a strange knight already engaging the deluded but honourable accuser Lurcanio, and he declares that neither contender should lose his life, Genevra's unknown champion because he fights for the right, Lurcanio because he is the victim of deceit. The combat ceases. Renaldo then accuses Polynesso and in the ensuing fight he mortally wounds him. Polynesso dies confessing his guilt; the strange knight reveals himself as Ariodante and is joyfully reunited with Genevra (to protect whom, though still thinking her guilty, he has even opposed his brother); and Dalinda betakes herself to a nunnery.

The similarities to Shakespeare's plot (though they show considerable variation) amount to Polynesso's mortal jealousy (for reasons different from Don John's in the play); his love affair with the maid and the ladder ascent to the disguised girl impersonating her mistress (though the play transfers these operations to the subordinate Borachio); the maid's ignorance of her action's bearing; the court's belief (in the play only temporary) in the heroine's guilt; the defending champion's challenge to the accuser; and the happy outcome after peril.

The most obvious of the differences from Shakespeare's plot are Ariosto's courtly-romance level; his Scottish location and quite different personal names; his sense of tragic danger and murderous violence (far outgoing anything in the play); his villain's motives (foiled jealousy in love) and initiatives in the deception (instead of through an agent's instigation); his deceived lover's reported suicide and secret reappearance; his accusation urged not by the lover (as a kind of vengeance) but by the lover's brother (as an act of justice); his wholly different handling of Genevra's plight (as compared with Hero's) and of the circumstances of the challenge (in the poem the deluded compassionate Ariodante opposing his brother; in the play the deluded uncompassionate Claudio opposing the erstwhile friend Benedick) and the restoration of love; and the maid retiring to a nunnery (in the play, fully restored in social esteem). Shakespeare's particulars belong to a markedly different conception from Ariosto's.


Bandello's version is much racier, and far nearer to Shakespeare's. It tells how the knightly Sir Timbreo di Cardona, one of King Piero of Aragon's courtiers, and a valiant soldier while the King is capturing Sicily, falls in love during the victory celebrations in Messina with Fenicia, daughter of Messer Lionato de' Lionati, ‘a poor gentleman and not his equal’.6 Fenicia behaves so modestly that Sir Timbreo concludes that he can win her only by marriage (not at all his original plan). Her birth, he reflects, is lower than his but she is of good lineage, and through a friendly nobleman he gains her father's consent. The lovers rejoice and all Messina likewise, Lionato being highly regarded.

A rival, however, Sir Girondo Olerio Valenziano, has also fallen in love with Fenicia. Though basically honourable, and a friend of Sir Timbreo's, he resolves to break the betrothal, and he employs an agent, ‘more pleased with evil than with good’ (II.115), to tell Sir Timbreo that if he will hide in the garden he shall see Fenicia that very night playing him false. Suffering ‘bitter (and as it seemed to him just) anger’ (II.115), and ‘blinded with the veil of jealousy’ (II.116), Sir Timbreo does so, unaccompanied. The bedroom, in a remote part of the house, is entered by Sir Girondo's servant dressed as a gentleman. Sir Timbreo's love turns to ‘cruel hate’ (II.117), but bound by a vow of silence he leaves the scene without intervening.

Through the nobleman who arranged the betrothal he informs Lionato that Fenicia's misconduct has ended the engagement. Her whole family is shocked; Lionato, attributing the charge to Sir Timbreo's scorn at their reduced circumstances, vows his belief in her innocence and his trust that God will vindicate her. Fenicia herself, swooning, then recovering for a while, delivers a long and touching defence and prays that God will enlighten Sir Timbreo. She then lies apparently dead, but while awaiting burial she revives and her family take this as a sign that truth shall prevail. She is secretly sent to the country house of Lionato's brother and renamed Lucilla. The whole city grieves, obsequies are performed, and a sonnet is carved on her ‘tomb’.

Sir Timbreo now begins to waver. He reflects that the bedroom in question is too remote to be hers, and that the intruder could hardly have been visiting her. More remarkably, Sir Girondo, struck with remorse at Fenicia's fate, offers Sir Timbreo his dagger before her tomb, confesses what his jealousy had driven him to, and begs for death.

Vengeance on him will not restore Fenicia, however, and Sir Timbreo nobly declines it. Valuing friendship before love he announces that had he known of Sir Girondo's passion he would have yielded Fenicia to him, or, he suggests, had they discussed the matter, Sir Girondo might have done likewise. They will, at any rate, publicly vindicate her, and this they do. Lionato exacts a promise that Sir Timbreo will take no other bride than one chosen for him.

Time passes. Fenicia completes her seventeenth year and blooms so beautifully as to be unrecognizable as her former self. She has, moreover, a younger sister Belfiore, almost as lovely. Lionato tells Sir Timbreo that he has a bride for him, and a gay company (including Sir Girondo) makes for the country house, attends Mass, and meets Fenicia-Lucilla and Belfiore. Though Sir Timbreo is reminded of Fenicia, in her enhanced beauty he does not recognize her. They are married, and at the wedding banquet he poignantly expresses his grief for the ‘dead’ bride, his joy in the living one, and his adoration of both; whereupon Lionato announces that the two are one. Joyful reunion ensues, Girondo begs for and receives forgiveness and the hand of Belfiore, and King Piero receives the party on its return to Messina with festivities, bestowing dowries on the brides and wealth and honour on Lionato.

This story is much nearer Shakespeare's than is Ariosto's. From it he derives the festive Messina setting, the names of Pedro and Leonato, Claudio's recent war service (different though the war's cause and course), the courtship conducted through a noble intermediary, the deceiver's disguised agent, the lover's seemingly justified public rejection of the supposedly false bride, the religious assurance buoying up the heroine's friends, her swoon, revival, self-defence, and presumed death, the obsequies and epitaph, Claudio's penitence and submission, Leonato's offering of the ‘substitute’ bride under his brother's auspices, the acceptance and marriage of the veiled and unknown lady, the revelation, and the concluding festivities under princely patronage.

The differences from Shakespeare's plot are, nevertheless, notable enough to testify to Shakespeare's selective and modifying intelligence. First, Bandello's King Piero has no part in the plot save as the victor during whose sojourn in Messina the wooing takes place, with no intervention from him, and as the patron of the eventual marriage. Shakespeare, instead, has Don Pedro presiding throughout and negotiating the betrothal. The story gains a more courtly air. Then, Bandello gives Fenicia a mother, whom Shakespeare discards, though including ‘Innogen’ as Leonato's wife in the entry directions for I.i and II.i. Since in Bandello the mother figures almost solely when the ‘dead’ girl is being prepared for burial, and Shakespeare makes no use of this scene, her part doubtless just naturally lapsed. Then again, Sir Timbreo is a sensual youth prepared to seduce Fenicia and turning to marriage only when seduction proves impossible: Claudio, quite on the contrary, rejects Leonato's surmise that he may have ‘made defeat of [Hero's] virginity’ and vows, convincingly, that he has shown nothing but ‘Bashful sincerity and comely love’ (IV.i.47, 54). Throughout he is a shy wooer, whose willingness to have Don Pedro negotiate for him seems due as much to social diffidence (so different from his military courage) as to the expected diplomacies of well-bred courtship.

Then again, jealous though Sir Timbreo is on thinking himself deceived, he shows no sign of the jumpiness that the callow Claudio evinces when Don John, almost as his first action, tricks him into thinking that Don Pedro has wooed for himself. True, Claudio is not too blameworthy in this, for Leonato's circle—Leonato, Antonio, even Beatrice and Benedick—all think the same; this Act II minor gulling portends the Act III major one, where Claudio's credulity is again endorsed by the similar error of the experienced Don Pedro. Wanting to give plausibility to the later crisis, Shakespeare differs from Bandello in making Claudio's temperamental instability a strand in the web of deceptions and misunderstandings integral to the play's fabric.

The motives for deception, next, are much changed from Bandello's. Rivalry over Hero, though credible were the events real, would in the world of the play be unfitting to so gentle and sheltered a heroine, so no element of rival love enters: Hero is to be virginal even to the extent of having no other wooer. From the rumbles of the concluded war Shakespeare picks up a different motive for Don John's envy—military jealousy and rancour—and saves Hero from any taint of competition; Don John's animus is against the ‘young start-up’ whose glory it is to have overthrown him (I.iii.62-3) and against the princely brother who has forgiven his rebellion.

The deceiver, moreover, is not Bandello's brave (though temporarily erring) knight who has loyally fought in King Piero's war but a rebel against his lord and brother; he has the wicked nature of Ariosto's Polynesso embodied in the saturnine, melancholic, minor Machiavel readily recognizable as the source of malice, and dramatically popular on the Elizabethan stage. He is, moreover, a bastard, in conventional corroboration of this evil humour, though on the stage the fact, set down in an entry direction (I.i.87), is not mentioned until Benedick reveals it after the church scandal (IV.i.188).7 For Bandello's ‘friend’, treacherous only through love rivalry, Shakespeare substitutes a melodramatic rebel/foxy schemer, polarizes the two sides, sharpens the dramatic effect, and avoids the love-versus-friendship situation which had worked so dubiously in The Two Gentlemen of Verona and which in Bandello produces a Sir Timbreo and Sir Girondo each ready to hand over Fenicia regardless of her choice. Shakespeare rejects also the unlikely situation in Bandello when Sir Girondo, penitent after his appalling conduct, is again received into Lionato's family and shares in the wedding celebrations.

Among other main differences from Bandello are the equalizing of rank between Claudio and Hero, whose father is Governor of Messina, gracious and generous host of Don Pedro, not merely the head of a reduced though ancient family. This results in social cordiality all round among friends and eliminates any intrusive considerations of status. Of more importance are the different ways in which the accusation and its sequel are managed. In Bandello, Sir Timbreo alone sees the ladder trick. He then engages a friend to break off the betrothal before ever the wedding ceremony is reached. He wholly fails to convince Fenicia's family that she is guilty, and soon he begins to suspect his own judgement. Claudio on the other hand has fellow witnesses, in one of whom he has every confidence, and what they think they see is corroborated by Borachio. Then, though earlier he has had Don Pedro woo for him, Claudio himself takes up in church the role of accuser and performs it with highly dramatic effect; the impact is much stronger than with Bandello's breach negotiated by proxy, effected in Leonato's own household. So clear does the evidence seem, and so authoritative are the witnesses, that Leonato is convinced, and even Benedick is ‘attir'd in wonder’ (IV.i.144) until Beatrice makes his mind up for him. And Claudio, far from coming to suspect his own judgement, has to behave with egregious tactlessness, to be challenged by Benedick (analogously to the situation in Ariosto, though this one is differently handled), and have his error dispelled by Dogberry.

Neither Bandello nor Shakespeare intends the tragic shock to be unbearable; both provide assurance of relief. But this happens in quite different ways. Bandello has Lionato's family confident that God will reveal the truth; Shakespeare has Dogberry's Watch discover it beforehand, and the Friar give spiritual comfort in church. The passions of Claudio and Leonato stretch the nerves in one direction: knowledge that enlightenment will soon dawn relieves them in the other (though Benedick's challenge to Claudio, instigated by the marvellously welcome indignation of Beatrice, maintains the potential of tension). Finally, Dogberry's bumblings produce an enormously enjoyable sense of relaxation.

As for Claudio's conduct, from accusation to clarification, it is far more disturbing than Sir Timbreo's. Whatever psychological reasons may be offered (callowness, shattered idealism, hyperemotional self-justification, the choking intemperateness to which adolescents are liable, and so on), it is difficult to forgive such behaviour. Yet, as The Merchant of Venice had recently shown, Shakespeare was fascinated even in comedy by dramatic intensification whenever tragic potential is present. This kind of comedy is a sunny day over the afternoon of which looms the blackness of storm, to yield to the glow of evening. (Not long before, the end of Love's Labour's Lost had shadowed the sunshine with death delaying the fulfilment of love.)

So—and here Shakespeare differs dramatically from Bandello—the church scene explodes with power. Making the bridegroom central in the denunciation of the bride, springing this theatrical coup amidst the happy expectancies and solemnities of the church scene, Shakespeare achieves a scene so startling that the inmost natures of the participants disclose themselves in a way alien to mere comedy.

As for the dénouement, in the sources either the maid, if there is one, or the repentant deceiver discloses the truth. In Shakespeare, things are quite different. Margaret (one feels if one finds time to reflect, but none is allowed) ought to do so but does not, and Don John certainly will not. So Dogberry steps in, an incomparable deus ex machina, and turns grief and anger into irresistible mirth.


The main ingredients Shakespeare finds in Ariosto, then, are the following: the intriguer of unredeemed wickedness; the lady's maid involved in an affair with the villain (or his agent), in the ladder trick, and in the impersonation of her mistress, while ignorant of the guile which prompts this; the joint witness, by the lover and his supporter, of the furtive entry; the shared belief in the heroine's guilt; the challenge by a defender; and the villain's punishment.

In Bandello he finds the setting in Messina and its elegant society; names for the visiting prince and his host; the young lover's prowess in his prince's war; the courtship conducted through a noble intermediary; stress on social honour blotted by supposed feminine frailty; the intriguer's scheming subordinate who effects the night entry; the heroine's swoon, revival, self-defence, apparent death, concealment, unrecognized reappearance, and finally revealed identity; the religious context promising the proper outcome; and the final festivities reestablishing the initial gaiety.

Interweaving Bandello's materials with Ariosto's, Shakespeare shows a mind ranging over elements loosely similar but so markedly variant in tone and incidents that only the shrewdest of judgements could co-ordinate them into a theme of such tragicomic force. Of course, his treatment shows one fundamental difference from both Ariosto's and Bandello's: those, though ending with love satisfied, are not comedies. In Much Ado, Beatrice, Benedick, and Dogberry affect the tenor of the serious plot throughout, enriching and brightening it in its happy phases, qualifying its severity in its grave ones, and doing this not merely by concurrent presence but by the most integral of plotrelationships. Much Ado is indeed superbly devised.


Belleforest's narrative closely follows Bandello's, particularly in its later stages, from the crisis of the broken engagement to the end. The main difference lies in much sentimental and moralizing embellishment; Belleforest is about half as long again as Bandello, a difference for which the embellishment largely accounts. To relate his plot would be virtually to recite Bandello again.

On which version Shakespeare drew can hardly be determined with complete certainty, since the differences between them, in so far as they belong to the story and not to the sentimentalizings of Belleforest, are insignificant; none, anyway, has any bearing on Shakespeare's treatment. The likelihood, though, is in favour of Bandello. Momentarily, Belleforest's ‘le Roy Pierre d'Aragon’ may look closer than Bandello's ‘il re Piero di Ragona’, but this detail is too slight to support any deduction.

What seems more significant is that, while in neither version does King Piero/Pierre figure as more than detachedly present at start and finish (at the start as the victor whose entourage is enjoying life in Messina, at the finish as benefactor of Lionato's family), Belleforest's prince enters the story much less favourably than Bandello's, as ‘ce roy inhumain Pierre d'Aragon’. This is because Belleforest's French patriotism is outraged by the slaughter suffered by the French at the Sicilian vespers of 1283, which occasioned the King's arrival with his army to take the island over. If this had been how Pierre was brought to Shakespeare's attention, the transformation into the gaily participating, courteous, and kind Don Pedro of the play would be most unexpected. It is true that in Bandello also King Piero occupies Sicily (being induced to do so by the Pope), and then defeats an invasion by the King of Naples with great difficulty and much slaughter on both sides. But nothing is said to his disadvantage, and much is made of the joyful victory celebrations, so he forms a far likelier original for Shakespeare to transform into the noble friend who furthers the young hero's suit.

The odds, then, seem decidedly to favour Bandello as the actual source. For all practical purposes, in any case, he must be so considered, since Belleforest—if against likelihood his was the version Shakespeare had before him—merely transmits, as far as all material points go, what his precursor furnished him with.


Beatrice and Benedick themselves, though not referable to precise sources, owe much to two traditions. These are those of the scorner of love, rejecting suitors, and of the witty courtiers in many Renaissance stories exchanging debate or badinage.


This tradition is familiar in romance and popular narrative. The scorner, the love-heretic, often finds his or her hauteur a prelude to conversion and surrender. In Troilus and Criseyde, having derided Cupid as ‘lord of thise fooles alle’, Troilus is foreseeably subjected to the anguish and ardour of desire. Shakespeare's own Valentine opens The Two Gentlemen of Verona by teasing the amorous Proteus on being ‘yoked’ in a state ‘where scorn is bought with groans, / Coy looks with heart-sore sighs’ (I.i.29-30), only himself soon to be mocked by Speed as being ‘metamorphis'd with a mistress’, Silvia (II.i.16-28). The King and lords of Love's Labour's Lost suffer similarly for their hubris, and admit defeat. An instance very recent at the time when Shakespeare was working on Much Ado is that in Spenser's story of the haughty Mirabella, the widely adored but scornful beauty who vows that, born free, she will ever remain so.8 ‘With the onely twinckle of her eye’ (stanza 31) she torments her admirers until Cupid enquires why his servants suffer so, and then condemns her to wander the world until she has saved as many loves as she destroyed. Since in two years she manages to redeem two only as against the scores she has slain, the sentence looks interminable. Her steed is led by the tyrannous Disdain cruelly abusing her, and followed by Scorn with a whip (Beatrice, we may recall, is ‘Lady Disdain’, in whose eyes ‘Disdain and scorn ride sparkling’).

A nearer suggestion of Beatrice, however, occurs in Castiglione's Il Cortegiano (1528): Shakespeare may well have known it:

I have also seene a most fervent love spring in the heart of a woman, towarde one that seemed at the first not to beare him the least affection in the world [This appears to mean ‘towards one for whom she seemed not to bear the least affection’; Ed.], onely for that she heard say, that the opinion of many was, that they loved together.9

Nothing could better foreshadow Beatrice's self-discovery.

Shakespeare had himself treated the related though different figures of Katherina the beautiful termagant of The Taming of the Shrew, the witty ladies of Love's Labour's Lost routing the lords who think themselves superior to love, and Portia in The Merchant of Venice deriding her flock of suitors as gaily as Beatrice could do. Shortly, in As You Like It, Rosalind would mock affected lovers. All these in due course yield, like Beatrice herself, but before they do they all (save for Katherina) deploy the shrewd wisdom and witty malice which are their invincible weapons against male pretension.


What was needed for wit comedy was a literary genre of intellectual equality between the sexes in a sophisticated spirit of challenge and debate; this is the basic theme of George Meredith's classic essay The Idea of Comedy.

The traditions of courtesy literature which came to provide this did not begin with the Italian Renaissance,10 but for the present purpose the seminal inspiration was that of Baldassare Castiglione's Il Cortegiano, the outstanding example of Renaissance social doctrine.11 Castiglione (1478-1529) entered the service of the Duke of Urbino in 1504 and proved accomplished in war and the humanities. He recorded the tone of his circle in a work which Dr Johnson was to recommend to Boswell on 2 October 1773, while they were in Skye, as ‘the best book that ever was written on good breeding’.12 It celebrates the ducal circle in ‘the lytle Citye of Urbin’, a principal feature of which is the distinction of the women. Among them Lady Emilia Pia, ‘endowed with so lovely a wytt and judgment as you shall knowe, seemed the maistresse and ringe leader of all the companye’. The spirit of the place is one of intelligent happiness—‘pleasaunte communication and merye conceytes, and in every man's countenaunce … a lovynge jocoundness’.13 The men are brave, honourable, and athletic, the women charming, lively, and intelligent:

For right as it is seemlye for [the man] to showe a certain manlinesse full and steadye, so doeth it well in a woman to have a tendernesse, soft and milde, with a kinde of womanlie sweetnes in every gesture of herres.14

They dance, cultivate music, and enjoy ‘wytty sportes and pastimes’. Accomplishments are achieved ‘rather as nature and trueth leade them, then study and arte’.15 Their speech is cultured, neither archaic nor affected, their utterances well turned. Debating on love and kindred matters the women distinguish themselves as much as the men, for ‘who woteth not that without women no contentation or delite can be felt in all this lief of ourse?’16 In particular the sprightly contentions between Lady Emilia and Lord Gaspare Pallavicino reflect their ideal of mental and temperamental equality. The Tudor Translations edition admirably sums up what the book could offer to Elizabethan playwrights. First, in general terms:

In one notable regard The Courtyer may well have served as a model for the nascent Elizabethan drama. The dramatic form of colloquy in which the book was cast was the most popular of literary forms at the time of the Renaissance. … To escape from the appointed order, the categories, partitions, and theses of scholasticism into a freer air; to redeem the truths of morals and philosophy from their servitude to system, and to set them in motion as they are seen in the live world, … was in itself a kind of humanism, a reaching after the more perfect expressiveness of the drama.

Then, in more specific terms:

The civil retorts, delicate interruptions, and fencing matches of wit that are scattered throughout the book had an even higher value as models for English writing. Where could English courtly comedy learn the trick of its trade better than from this gallant realism? … The best models of courtly dialogue available for Lyly and Shakespeare were to be sought in Italy; not in the Italian drama, which was given over to the classic tradition, but in just such natural sparkling conversations as were reported in the dialogue form of Italian prose.17

The inspiration of The Courtyer was extended by other works. George Pettie translated Stefano Guazzo's La Civile Conversazione (1574) out of Italian as The Civile Conversation of M. Steeven Guazzo (1581, Books 1 to 3; 1586, Book 4, translated by Bartholomew Young). This consists of discussions between Guazzo's brother and the brother's friend, discussions ‘rather familiar and pleasant, than affected and grave, … with carefull diligence and skilful art; mary yet so that … the whole seemeth to be done by chaunce’.18 Particularly notable in Guazzo's cultivation of social courtesies is the comment on the animating spirit of women in society:

If you marke the order of feastes, playes, and merie meetings of friends, you will saye, that all these assemblies are colde and nothing delightfull, if there bee no women at them. For … men in their presence plucke up their spirites, and indevour by woordes, jestures, and all other wayes to give them to understande howe desirous they are of their favour and good will. … To be shorte, women are they whiche keepe men waking and in continuall exercise. … [And] women do the verie same, who I warrant you woulde not be so fine, so trimmed and tricked up, so amiable every way, but of a desire to please men.19

No very original discovery, perhaps; yet to establish such a code was to set the tone for Shakespeare's world of courtly comedy.


In comic drama the strongest influence on Shakespeare was that of John Lyly's euphuistic fiction and plays.20 Their effects on Shakespeare's prose will be suggested [elsewhere]; here what is in question is the technique of comic management. Lyly's is a gay, trim world of (if one took them seriously) affected clevernesses, in an elegantly mannered society which would be speechless were epigrams disallowed. Each phrase must have its point, each utterance its poise and pattern like the figures in a dance; each speaker must, whatever his alleged emotion, be self-possessed.

Lyly's plays develop epigrams and antitheses as their specific mode. The brisk logic-chopping of his pert pages and banterers foreshadows that of Shakespeare's cheerful impertinents like Moth, Costard, Launce, Speed, and Launcelot. His suavely witty exchanges among young elegants are heard again in Shakespeare's courtly comedies. The aim is to achieve, as Silvia remarks in The Two Gentlemen of Verona, ‘a fine volley of words, gentlemen, and quickly shot off’, except that the ladies are as adept as the gentlemen and often more so, and the volleys, with Shakespeare's development, consist not of words alone but of perceptive analyses and the sparkling rallies of active minds.21


Shakespeare had already brought to a high point of stage effectiveness the sexual rivalry for mastery in The Taming of the Shrew (for instance at II.i.179-270) and the wit contest over love and other matters among the lords and ladies of Love's Labour's Lost, Berowne and Rosaline in particular (as at II.i.113-27 and 179-92). In Berowne, moreover, he had already drawn a precursor of Benedick, rallying on all but equal terms with the wittiest of the women; ‘a merrier man / Within the limit of becoming mirth / I never spent an hour's talk withal,’ Rosaline testifies, one whose ‘eye begets occasion for his wit’ so that his tongue turns to jest whatever it touches. Shakespeare had also shown the self-confident Berowne, suddenly subject to love, breaking out into comically exasperated soliloquies in verse and prose which are hardly distinguishable from the idiom of Benedick:

And I, forsooth, in love; I, that have been love's whip;
A very beadle to a humorous sigh;
A critic, nay, a night-watch constable;
A domineering pedant o'er the boy,
Than whom no mortal so magnificent!
                                        … Go to; it is a plague
That Cupid will impose for my neglect
Of his almighty dreadful little might.(22)

The King he is hunting the deer: I am coursing myself. They have pitched a toil: I am toiling in a pitch—pitch that defiles. Defile! a foul word. … I will not love; if I do, hang me. I'faith, I will not. O, but her eye! By this light, but for her eye, I would not love her—yes, for her two eyes. Well, I do nothing in the world but lie, and lie in my throat. By heaven, I do love; and it hath taught me to rhyme, and to be mallicholy; and here is part of my rhyme, and here my mallicholy. Well, she hath one o' my sonnets already; the clown bore it, the fool sent it, and the lady hath it: sweet clown, sweeter fool, sweetest lady!23

Prefiguring Benedick, Berowne boasts himself superior to his fellows:

I am betray'd by keeping company
With men like you, men of inconstancy.
When shall you see me write a thing in rhyme?
Or groan for Joan? or spend a minute's time
In pruning me? When shall you hear that I
Will praise a hand, a foot, a face, an eye,
A gait, a state, a brow, a breast, a waist,
A leg, a limb?—(24)

this, of course, immediately before proving as vulnerable as they.

If Benedick has his forerunner in Berowne, Beatrice has hers among the witty ladies first of Lylyan and then of Shakespearean comedy. Of them all, only Katherina of The Taming of the Shrew compares with her in combativeness (and she is acrimoniously rather than attractively ‘witty’, greatly outdoing Beatrice in belligerence, though Beatrice shares the impulse to dominate which makes Katherina shrewish, as Beatrice, except in fun, is not): but others like Rosaline, Portia, and Rosalind delight in their intelligent high spirits. When they are satirical they are appreciatively so, enjoying the extravagances they mock but desiring no more in the way of reform than the prevalence of affectionate esteem and good humour. Each is, as Beatrice is for Don Pedro, ‘By my troth, a pleasant-spirited lady’, and each might say, as Beatrice does, ‘There was a star danced, and under that was I born’.


John Aubrey (1626-97) collected materials for his Brief Lives from sources more or less connected with Shakespeare, and among them the report that

The Humour of … the Constable in a Midsomernight's Dreame, he happened to take at Grendon [i.e. Grendon Underwood] in Bucks … whiche is in the roade from London to Stratford, and there was living that Constable about 1642 when I first came to Oxon. Mr. Jos. Howe is of that parish and knew him.25

A Midsummer Night's Dream boasting no constable, this may be meant for Bottom the weaver, but since the Grendon notable is specifically constabulary Aubrey probably erred over the play's name rather than the character's function. One cherishes the thought of some actual Dogberry, in his own world anything but mute and inglorious. More ‘sources’ than this cannot be expected, save in the general sense that exuberant mismanagers of the English language, of the logic of evidence, and of the processes of discourse have always been found comic; Shakespeare had shown Dull, the constable of Love's Labour's Lost, ‘reprehending’ the Duke and wishing to ‘see his own person in flesh and blood’ (Dull's part is brief, however), Bottom lording it over his fellows, Launcelot Gobbo and his father bemusing Bassanio by interrupting each other,26 and Mistress Quickly unleashing her dazingly voluble malapropisms.

John Payne Collier, who included a biography of Will Kemp, the original Dogberry, in his Memorials of the Principal Actors in the Plays of Shakespeare (in the Shakespeare Society's publications for 1846), printed in that society's papers for 1844 a letter from Lord Burghley to Secretary Walsingham dated 10 August 1586, at a time when it was pressingly important to arrest conspirators in the Babington plot against the Queen. In his urgency Burghley marked his missive ‘hast hast hast hast Post’, and what he was so agitated about were ludicrous shortcomings he had discovered in the measures to (as Dogberry would have it) comprehend all aspicious persons. No actual connection is suggested between the Watch at Enfield (whence the complaint arose) and that at Messina, but real life may have furnished Shakespeare with inspirations over and above any he found at Grendon. The letter runs as follows:

Sir—As I cam from London homward, in my coche, I sawe at every townes end the number of x or xii, standyng, with long staves, and untill I cam to Enfeld I thought no other of them, but that they had stayd for avoyding of the rayne, or to drynk at some alehowse, for so they did stand under pentyces [i.e. penthouses—like Borachio!] at ale howses. But at Enfeld fyndyng a dosen in a plump, when ther was no rayne, I bethought my self that they war appointed as watchmen, for the apprehendyng of such as are missyng; and there uppon I called some of them to me apart, and asked them wherfor they stood there? and one of them answered, ‘To take 3 yong men.’ And demandyng how they should know the persons, one answered with these wordes: ‘Marry, my Lord, by intelligence of ther favor.’ ‘What meane you by that?’ quoth I. ‘Marry’, sayd they, ‘one of the partyes hath a hooked nose.’ ‘And have you,’ quoth I, ‘no other mark?’—‘No’, sayth they. And then I asked who apoynted them; and they answered one Bankes, a Head Constable, whom I willed to be sent to me. Surely, sir, who ever had the chardge from yow hath used the matter negligently for these watchmen stand so openly in plumps, as no suspected person will come neare them; and if they be no better instructed but to fynd 3 persons by one of them havyng a hooked nose, they may miss thereof. And thus I thought good to advertise yow, that the Iustyces that had the chardge, as I thynk, may use the matter more circumspectly.27

The fact that in the play Borachio brings Conrade under the penthouse out of the rain is doubtless sheer coincidence. But one treasures the light thrown on constabulary practice by Bankes's men, to whom Dogberry's charge might well have been directed, who seem likelier than not to let ‘vagrom men’ steal out of their company, and who have merely a hooked nose on which to hang their case. Messina's Watch, conjuring up the mysterious Deformed, a vile thief this seven year, who wears a key in his ear and hath a lock hanging by it and borrows money in God's name without repaying it, could hardly surpass the earnest confusions of Enfield's.28

Dogberry's ‘source’, if seminally in some worthy of Grendon, lies rather among these anticipations, combined with certain stage precedents,29 together (it is a major consideration) with the cherished abilities of Will Kemp, the role's original performer. Kemp, leading comedian of the 1590s, figures in the anonymous Cambridge satire The Returne from Parnassus, Part 2 (c. 1601) as instructing a student, Philomusus, in stage delivery, and declaring that his face ‘would be good for a foolish Mayre or a foolish iustice of peace’;30 he could presumably have trained him, too, for a foolish constable. Whatever Kemp's skills as a comic actor, Shakespeare would certainly envisage them in his conception of Dogberry.31


  1. G. Bullough, Narrative and Dramatic Sources of Shakespeare, vol. II (1958), p. 62.

  2. C. T. Prouty discusses and reprints this work, from the sole surviving copy in the Huntington Library, in The Sources ofMuch Ado About Nothing’ (1950).

  3. A. Feuillerat, Documents Relating to the Office of the Revels in Time of Queen Elizabeth, in Bang's Materialen, XXI.238. ‘Panecia’ may be an error for ‘Fenicia’, the guiltless heroine of Bandello's version.

  4. Ibid., XXI.350.

  5. Bullough, II.66, 68.

  6. Bullough, II.118. Further references in this section are likewise to Bullough.

  7. In King John, Philip Faulconbridge, bastard son of Richard Coeur de Lion, is a hero worthy of his father; bastardy, though conventionally thought synonymous with wickedness, was not necessarily so considered.

  8. The Faerie Queene, VI.vii. The parallel was pointed out by A. F. Potts in ‘Spenserian “Courtesy” and “Temperance” in Shakespeare's Much Ado About Nothing’, SAB XVII (1942), and developed by C. T. Prouty in The Sources ofMuch Ado About Nothing’, pp. 53-5.

  9. Op. cit., ed. W. Raleigh (1900), Tudor Translations series, p. 279.

  10. For medieval precedents see John Lawlor (ed.), Patterns of Love and Courtesy (1966).

  11. See Mary Augusta Scott, ‘The Book of the Courtyer: a possible source of Benedick and Beatrice’, PMLA XVI (1901), p. 476. The article argues: (i) that Shakespeare could well have known the work, since it had had three editions by 1588; (ii) that prior to Much Ado he had done nothing in dialogue comparable to the freedom and ease of the conversazioni in Il Cortegiano (a dubious point); (iii) that, wishing to brighten the semi-tragedy of Claudio and Hero, he found in The Courtyer ‘a charming witty pair [Lord Gaspare Pallavicino and the Lady Emilia Pia] in a dramatic dialogue’; (iv) that though in their witty sparrings (like Much Ado's ‘merry war’), Lord Gaspare (like Benedick ‘a professed tyrant to their sex’) takes a lively anti-feminist stance and Lady Emilia counter-attacks, all this happens in a mutually appreciative spirit. ‘It is impossible to speak too highly of the artistic setting of the four evenings' conversation, sparkling with every variety of graceful interlude, from grave to gay; now a pleasing metaphor, now a jest, a drollery—a skirmish of wit, a dramatic episode’ (op. cit., p. 487). The resemblances noted are, however, merely general parallels, sometimes quite loose, and not specific enough to prove a direct debt owed by Shakespeare to Castiglione.

  12. Its influence rapidly spread. In England Thomas Hoby translated it (1552-4) and published the result in 1561 as The Courtyer of Count Baldassar Castilio; further editions followed in 1577 and 1588, before the date of Much Ado. Roger Ascham, in The Scholemaster (1570), remarked that it should be more noted in the English court (he died in 1568, before it had had its full effect), since ‘advisedlie read and diligentlie folowed but one yeare at home in England [it] would do a yong jentleman more good then three yeares travell abrode spent in Italie’ (ed. J. E. B. Mayor, 1863, p. 61). John Florio's Second Frutes (1591: dedication) reports that the most commonly studied books for those learning Italian were this, together with Guazzo's dialogues (see below, p. 18). In John Marston's first Satire (ll. 27-50) the punctilious courtier is ‘the absolute Castilio,—/ He that can all the points of courtship show’. Everard Guilpin's Skialethia (1598) invites the reader to Court, where ‘Balthazer [i.e. Baldassare Castiglione] affords / Fountaines of holy and rose-water words’ (Sig. C4). Gabriel Harvey paid repeated Latin tributes (e.g. Rhetor, 1577, prefatory letter, and fol. I.ii; also Gratulatio Valdinensium, 1578, IV.3, 17, 18). Ben Jonson's Timber: or Discoveries (1641) recommends Castiglione's book, along with Cicero's De Oratore, as a model for the ‘Life, and Quicknesse, which is the strength and sinnewes of your penning, by pretty Sayings, Similitudes, and Conceits’ (ed. G. B. Harrison, 1923, pp. 86-7).

  13. Op. cit., ed. W. Raleigh (1900), p. 32.

  14. Ibid., p. 219.

  15. Ibid., p. 59.

  16. Ibid., p. 264.

  17. Ibid., pp. lxxi-lxxii, lxxxiv.

  18. Op. cit., ed. E. Sullivan (1925), Tudor Translations, 2nd series, I.24, 27.

  19. Op. cit., I.235-6.

  20. There is an excellent chapter, ‘Lyly and Shakespeare’, in G. K. Hunter's John Lyly: the Humanist as Courtier (1962).

  21. Of Love's Labour's Lost G. K. Hunter remarks, ‘Shakespeare has written a courtly play, a play which exposes to our admiration the brilliant life of a highly civilised community bent on enjoying itself. … Shakespeare, like Lyly, centres his picture of Cortegiano-like brilliance on what is also known as courtship—the verbal technique of wooing’ (op. cit., p. 334).

  22. LLL, III.i.164-8, 191-3.

  23. Ibid., IV.iii.1-15.

  24. Ibid., IV.iii.175-82.

  25. Aubrey's Brief Lives, ed. O. L. Dick (1949), p. 334.

  26. Mer. V., II.ii; cf. Ado III.V. Muriel Bradbrook sees Dogberry and Verges as ‘clearly incarnations of Gobbo and his father’ (in Leonard F. Dean, ed., Shakespeare: Modern Essays in Criticism, 1957, p. 105), but the resemblance is limited to this particular scene. Gobbo and Old Gobbo, Bottom and Quince, Dogberry and Verges, are all comedy duos, the leading comic man and his ‘feed’.

  27. Shakespeare Society Papers I (1844), pp. 3-4.

  28. Babington and other conspirators were in fact arrested on the day Burghley wrote his letter, though in different circumstances, so some parts of England's law-and-order system worked quite as well as Messina's.

  29. For a precedent in Lyly's Endimion see below, III.iii.i, n.

  30. The Three Parnassus Plays, ed. J. B. Leishman (1949), pp. 341-2.

  31. For Kemp's qualities see W. A. Armstrong, ‘Actors and theatres’, in Shakespeare in his Own Age, Shakespeare Survey 17 (1964), p. 195. This suggests that as Kemp was notorious for upstaging his fellow actors with extemporal witticisms Shakespeare provided him with a part devised to absorb such sallies: ‘As for Dogberry, … the bumbling discursiveness of the characterisation seems designed to accommodate … such digressions, by-play, and improvisations as Kempe may have brought to the role. That Shakespeare's clowns were shaped to fit the actors who played them seems beyond question.’

Sarah Hemming (review date 8 August 2002)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

SOURCE: Hemming, Sarah. Review of Much Ado about Nothing. Financial Times (8 August 2002): 18.

[In the following review of the 2002 Royal Shakespeare Company production of Much Ado about Nothing directed by Gregory Doran, Hemming contends that Doran's interpretation was unable to adequately link the dark and comic aspects of Shakespeare's drama.]

Even Shakespeare's sunniest comedies have dark shadows. In Much Ado About Nothing the focus is on Beatrice and Benedick, the two sceptics whose romance is conducted through denial. But equally important is the contrasting love affair of Claudio and Hero, during which Claudio cruelly and publicly jilts Hero at the altar. What price love here? Little wonder Beatrice and Benedick are so suspicious of it. Gregory Doran's RSC production astutely aims to illuminate this context by setting the play not in 16th-century Messina, but in the Sicily of 1936—the returning soldiers have just conducted Mussolini's campaign in Ethiopia. In the world of The Godfather, the strict codes of honour and revenge make sense; in a country under Fascism, the play's concern with loyalty and betrayal hit home. It's a great idea and the production looks lovely on Stephen Brimson Lewis's evocative, sun-baked set, and yet somehow it doesn't quite convince.

While the programme notes talk about vendettas and the subservient role of women in this machismo-dominated world, you don't feel this oppression on stage, and so you miss the full horror of Hero's impotence. Occasionally the setting really works—when Hero's aged uncle suddenly draws a nasty little knife to threaten Claudio, for instance, then you feel the brooding violence that otherwise is largely absent. Elsewhere, there is a slight uncertainty about the staging, which often leads to performers telegraphing the subtext. Margaret, Hero's attendant, is a woman of lax morals—so here she sits with her legs wide apart. Don Pedro can't get a wife and here it's clear that he is really gay—an interesting idea, in this macho setting, but Clive Wood's performance is so wildly camp that it loses all subtlety.

The comedy too is often rather stilted. The eavesdropping scenes are funny, but marred by overplaying. It is a nice touch, for instance, for Hero (Kirsten Parker) and Ursula (Noma Dumezweni) to hose down the screen of creepers behind which Beatrice is hiding, but the gag is rather spoiled by overdoing it. And the whole comic subplot with Dogberry and his watch, always difficult to make funny, doesn't come off at all here.

To be fair, the production does also have some inspired comic touches. Benedick, recovering the morning after the party, drops two Alka Seltzer tablets into his water—then covers the glass to dim the resultant fizz. And the two leads are excellent. Harriet Walter and Nicholas le Prevost make a mature Beatrice and Benedick, which lends pain to their wariness. Walter's Beatrice has a brittle wit, born of experience, and her rage at Hero's fate is palpable. Le Prevost is a superb Benedick: droll, world-weary, and wonderfully gawky in love. He plays his best lines with lovely timing and his attempts to read meaning into Beatrice's curt summons into dinner are delightful.

John Hopkins gives a fine performance as the superficial, self-regarding Claudio, and Gary Waldhorn brings expert timing and dignity to the part of Hero's father. And with the big scenes the production comes into its own. Hero's disgrace at the altar is painfully good, and, in a nice detail, the little pageboy is whisked away as the scene turns ugly. This is an attractive staging, full of such thoughtful little touches, and bowled forward by the brilliant energy of the two leads. Yet overall, the production rarely seems to relax enough to release both the comedy and the dark undercurrents of the play and so it misses its potential.

David Weil Baker (essay date 1998)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

SOURCE: Baker, David Weil. “‘Surpris'd with all’: Rereading Character in Much Ado about Nothing.” In Second Thoughts: A Focus on Rereading, edited by David Galef, pp. 228-45. Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1998.

[In the following essay, Baker argues that the absence of Leonato's wife Innogen in Much Ado about Nothing necessitates a reevaluation of the play's characters, especially the immediate members of Leonato's family.]

“Reade him, therefore; and againe, and againe,” enjoined Henry Condell and John Heminge, the supervisors of the publication of the First Folio, and this injunction to the “great Variety of Readers” contrasts with their depiction of a Shakespeare who never blotted a line and was thus presumably free from the need to reread his own work. Yet rereaders of Shakespeare's plays may find themselves in the position of the plotting Prospero as he watches Miranda and Ferdinand confirm their love according to a script that he has largely devised: “So glad of this as they I cannot be, / Who are surpris'd with all; but my rejoicing / At nothing can be more” (The Tempest, 3.1.93). That is, rereaders of a Shakespeare play may discover nuances and layers of meaning that delight them as nothing else, but some of the surprise is gone after their first experience of the play. Attacking what he terms the “new histrionicism,” Harry Berger describes this dilemma as the conflict between “wide-eyed” playgoing and the “slit-eyed” analysis of the armchair Shakespearean, but we do not have to confine the scope of the problem to the page/stage controversy.1 It is possible, of course, to attend performances of the same play again and again. In return for a better critical perspective on either performance or text, the “rereader” of a play would seem to lose the capacity to approach the world of the play as a completely new one and to behold it with Miranda-like innocence and wonder.2

The notorious instability of Shakespearean plays, however, provides some relief from the apparent dichotomy between the freshness of a first reading and the more jaded stance of the rereader.3 For paradoxically a rereading of a Shakespeare play is often a first reading, too—at least, of some parts of the play. Restoration adaptations of Shakespeare's plays reveal this paradox at its crudest. Modern readers typically experience surprise and even outrage when they compare Tate's adaptation (1681) of King Lear to the Folio text of the play or Shakespeare's Tempest to the Dryden-Davenant version (1667).4 (Davenant's The Law against Lovers (1662) amalgamated elements from the plots of Much Ado and Measure for Measure, but the title of the adaptation does not identify it with either Shakespearean source.) However, the more recent project of “unediting” Shakespeare has shown that, such outrage notwithstanding, we are still reading adaptations of his plays. Thus, the practice, originating in the eighteenth century, of conflating the quarto and Folio texts of King Lear is now the object of considerable skepticism, and this kind of skepticism has led to reexaminations of the texts of other Shakespearean plays and poems, too.5 The more carefully we reread Shakespeare, the more we seem to discover that we have yet to read him.

Character is no exception to this difficulty of fully distinguishing between Shakespeare reread and Shakespeare read for the first time. The Davenant-Dryden Tempest, for instance, introduces a number of new characters, and thus to move from this adaptation to the list of characters in the Folio Tempest is to experience a jolt. The dramatis personae, on the other hand, that accompany modern editions of Shakespeare's plays suggest that the identity of his characters is immutably fixed. They will stay the same no matter how many times they are read. Yet, as Randall McLeod has argued, Shakespeare's characters are “Poped” in most modern editions of the plays (“The Very Names of Persons” 88-96). Textual editors have imposed eighteenth-century notions of individuality and identity on these characters and rendered them more coherent than they are in seventeenth-century editions of the plays. Reread in the texts in which they first appeared, the characters of the Shakespearean quartos and the First Folio have a capacity to surprise that their counterparts in modern editions of the plays possess only faintly.

I want to examine one such potentially surprising character and her capacity to affect our rereading of Much Ado about Nothing, a play that, like The Tempest, concerns nuptials largely scripted by others besides the bride and bridegroom. Innogen, the wife of Leonato, appears in two stage directions to the Quarto of Much adoe about Nothing (1600) as well as the Folio version of the play, but editors, beginning with Theobald, have excised her role and relegated her to a textual note.6 Innogen is a “ghost” character—one who is alluded to in stage directions but given no speaking part—and, as a consequence of her disappearance from the play, she has received scant attention from its critics. Michael Friedman has made a good case for the performability of Innogen's role (49-50), but to most critics of the play Innogen has represented little more than an “abandoned intention” (Wells 3-4) or at best a character who “possibly should be seen but is certainly not heard” (Smidt 399). Both of these dismissals, however, exclude the possibility of her silence being an “open” and interpretable one. As Philip McGuire and Christina Luckyj have shown, the silence of women in Renaissance plays is often meant to be heard (McGuire 1-18; Luckyj 42-48). Nor is this silence necessarily tantamount to acquiescence. Albeit a “ghost” character, Innogen may haunt the play.

Innogen, however, is “ghostly” in another way; for she has the potential to make a play that has been read again and again seem strange and unfamiliar. Indeed, Theobald's suppression of Innogen renders her appearance in the Quarto and the Folio all the more dramatic:

I have ventured to expunge [this name]; there being no mention of her through the play, no one speech addressed to her, nor one syllable spoken to her. … It seems as if the poet had in his first plan designed such a character; which, on a survey of it, he found would be superfluous, and therefore left it out.

(Variorum Much Ado 7)

Theobald's completion of what he saw as Shakespeare's intended revisions makes an implicit argument about the incompleteness of Shakespeare's own rereading of Much Ado. That is, Shakespeare reread the play carefully enough to know that he wanted to expunge Innogen—i.e., blot some of his own lines—but then did not check to see whether he had remembered to do this. More important, however, Theobald's elimination of Innogen has the potential to highlight Innogen for the modern rereader of the play, who may find the presence of Innogen in the Quarto and Folio doubly intriguing precisely because Theobald deemed it superfluous. Reading backwards is, of course, a prominent feature of rereading in general: for instance, one detects an echo of an earlier scene in the fifth act of a play, and this echo leads to a rereading of the earlier scene. Yet problems of textual editing force the rereader to reverse course in a broader sense. We reread the Quarto of Much adoe in a historically “preposterous” manner.7 After becoming dissatisfied or intrigued with later emendations and adaptations, rereaders return to the texts of the play that historically came first.

The opening stage direction of the play provides a key opportunity for such retrogressive rereading. In the Arden edition, this stage direction reads:

Enter Leonato Governor of Messina, Hero his daughter, and Beatrice his niece, with a Messenger.

On the other hand, the Quarto reads:

Enter Leonato governour of Messina, Innogen his wife, Hero his daughter, and Beatrice his neece, with a messenger.

In both cases, this opening direction presents Leonato as the center of a number of family relations and as the source of political power in Messina, but these relations change when one rereads the play in the Quarto. Preserved in a textual note to the Arden Much Ado, Innogen, however, prompts this rereading of the Quarto. Thus, as an example of how the play appears in modern editions, the Arden Much Ado shows the contradictory effect of Theobald's emendation. Innogen is not so much thoroughly expunged from the play as made into a silent provocation. She invites a historically preposterous rereading of the play in the first textual form that we have of it.

What difference, however, does Innogen's presence make to Much Ado? How does she enable the rereader to experience surprise? Most obviously, she necessitates a reappraisal of Leonato's family. As Claire McEachern has argued, Much Ado may concern the relations between fathers and daughters as much as King Lear (274-87), and it seems to depict a father-daughter bond as intense as those in plays such as The Tempest and Lear, which isolate the fathers and daughters from mothers. Leonato's lack of a wife intensifies the father-daughter bond of the play. On the other hand, the presence of Innogen, who in the Quarto stage direction is neatly situated between Leonato and Hero, makes the “family romance” of the play more triangular. This is not to deny the importance of the bond between Leonato and Hero but only to suggest that this bond is mediated by another character. At the very least, Innogen's appearance in the stage direction raises the possibility of evaluating Leonato as a husband and a father.

Reread in the light of Innogen's appearance in the Quarto of Much adoe, other relationships and exchanges between two characters become more triangular, as well. Thus, upon arriving at Messina, Don Pedro immediately identifies Hero as Leonato's daughter: Leonato's reply jokingly suggests suspicion (lines 100-05; all quotations are from the Shakespeare Quarto Facsimiles edition of the play):

[DON] Pedro[:]
You embrace your charge too willingly: I thincke this is your daughter.
Her mother hath many times tolde me so.
BENED. [Benedick:]
Were you in doubt sir that you askt her?
Signior Benedicke, no, for then were you a child.

As far as the stage directions are concerned, Innogen is present during this male banter, where Leonato, by his very denial, conjures up the possibility of an adult Benedick impregnating Innogen. In The Tempest Prospero asserts in an equally dubious manner Miranda's legitimacy: “Thy mother was a piece of virtue, and / She said thou wast my daughter.” But, although Prospero's wife is, as Stephen Orgel has argued, an “absent presence” in The Tempest, she never materializes to the point of having a stage direction devoted to her (50-51). On the other hand, the scene as we have it in the Quarto Much adoe contains Innogen as a silent hearer of her husband's jocular aspersions.

When included in the play rather than consigned to a textual note, Innogen instigates a rereading of other characters and their relationships. Leonato's reference to the mother of Hero is a fleeting one, but since in the Quarto she is on stage, we are more entitled to wonder about the degree to which Leonato's marriage provides the model for his treatment of Hero and vice versa. Is Leonato's joking suspicion of his own wife the reason he is so ready to believe Claudio's accusation of Hero later in the play? On the other hand, Innogen's silence offers a way of explaining Hero's submissiveness. This silence certainly reveals the effect of marriage on the only female character of the play who is a wife. Indeed, a kind of preposterous rereading obtains here, too. To be sure, one could read Innogen's silence as proleptic of Hero's actions and predicament, but a more likely model is that of returning to the opening stage direction after having read the rest of the play. It is only in the light of what comes later that this opening stage direction and Innogen's presence in the scene become significant.

A play as reread as Much Ado would not seem to have too many secrets left. In particular, Much Ado would also seem to have been sufficiently mined for literary allusions in the names of its characters. But the name Innogen offers the rereader another surprise in the form of its provenance, which is legendary British history. For Innogen was the wife of Brutus, the supposedly Trojan founder of Britain, and the daughter of a Greek king, Pandrasus, whom Brutus defeated in battle. The marriage of Brutus and Innogen was of dynastic importance because its progeny were a race of kings and queens, but this marriage also constituted a sign of revenge and conquest. As Holinshed's Chronicles puts it, the first article of peace between Brutus and Pandrasus was that “Pandrasus should give his daughter Innogen unto Brute in marriage, with a competent summe of gold and silver for her dowrie” (439). Like Katherine in Henry V, Innogen was one of the concessions yielded by her father to the young man who had overpowered him militarily. (Indeed, even before coming to Greece, Brutus had already killed his own father in a hunting accident, and this accident was the reason for his exile.) Although Brutus and his band ultimately settled in England, not Greece, Innogen still signified an older generation's transferral of its power and authority to Brutus.

As a mother—the other aspect of her role that Holinshed's Chronicles emphasizes—Innogen also enabled Brutus to provide for the continuation of his newfound power and rule:

When Brutus had builded this citie, and brought the Iland fullie under his subjection, he by the advise of his nobles commanded this Ile … to be called Britaine; and the inhabitants Britons after his name, for a perpetuall memorie that he was the first bringer of them into the land. In the meanwhile also he had by his wife iii sonnes, the first named Locrinus or Locrine, the second Cambris.


This passage is replete with names and naming, and these names all perpetuate Brutus. The name of the Britons serves as an abiding reminder of Brutus's leadership just as his son Locrinus constitutes the means of extending that leadership into the distant future. Significantly, the only unnamed figure in the passage is Innogen, who appears as “his wife.” This anonymity again indicates her identity as a link between two generations of men—here, Brutus and his sons rather than Brutus and his surrogate father. Yet this anonymity is arguably only apparent when we reread Holinshed in the wake of the Quarto of Much adoe. That is, the Quarto renders Innogen's ghostly presence in Holinshed noticeable.

The Quarto of Much adoe displaces Holinshed's Innogen and provides the opportunity to reread Holinshed in the context of a Sicilian comic setting. As Northrop Frye long ago pointed out, Sicily could function in Renaissance plays and poetry as a kind of surrogate Britain, and in Cymbeline virtually the same set of names, Imogen and Posthumus Leonatus, reappear during a somewhat later era of British history.8 But reread in the comic context of Much adoe, Holinshed's dynastic history plot acquires new emphases. Shakespeare, of course, could have named one of the characters of Much adoe Brutus if he had wanted to allude to Holinshed's plot in a way that retained Holinshed's emphasis on male succession. But since the name Innogen conjures up Holinshed in Much adoe, the focus of the male dynastic plot also shifts to the effect of this plot on wives and would-be wives. This shift is, to some degree, generic: comedy may promote patriarchy, but it does require some interaction between the sexes. Yet, the point is not only that the Innogen story reads differently in the Quarto of Much adoe but that it may reread differently in Holinshed after one has detected the allusion to this story in the Quarto. Indeed, there is not much of an Innogen story in Holinshed until Much adoe underscores her significance. Holinshed's Innogen is available preposterously, i.e., to a rereader.

The name Innogen is evocative in Much adoe, and it impinges upon Much adoe in the same allusive way that the name Claudius affects the meaning of Hamlet.9 We are, of course, so used to reading again and again the identification of Hamlet's uncle as Claudius in both editions and criticism of the play that the paucity of textual evidence for this identification may seem surprising. Yet as Harold Jenkins points out, the name Claudius appears in only one speech heading and one stage direction of Hamlet (432-33). Elsewhere Hamlet's uncle is the king. Nevertheless, the identification of Hamlet's uncle as Claudius has become an entrenched part of criticism of the play, and interpreters have proved willing to reread Hamlet in relation to parallels from Roman history and vice versa.

But the evocativeness of Innogen's name provides a model for rereading other parts of Holinshed, too, and in particular the character of another wife from legendary British history. For even among Britain's first monarchs, a wife could be provoked to abandon, for a time, the role defined by Innogen. Thus, as Holinshed's Chronicles goes on to relate, Locrine, Innogen's son and Brutus's heir, and Guendolene, the daughter of one of Brutus's most valued allies, were married, and he aroused her ire by loving and having a child by another woman (444). Guendolene promptly defeated her husband in battle, imprisoned him, and, as Spenser puts it in The Faerie Queene, “first taught men a woman to obay” (2.10.20). Nevertheless, when her son came of age, Guendolene did consign her power to him. Albeit something of a Semiramis figure, Guendolene finally restored the male dynastic line from which she had briefly deviated.

The Quarto of Much adoe provides analogues to both the Innogen and Guendolene plots. On the one hand, Don Pedro and his band of uprooted soldiers (they are all from different places; Claudio from Florence, Benedick from Padua, and Don Pedro from Aragon) are the young warriors who have established themselves in battle and now must ratify their positions through marriage. Leonato and his brother are the older men whose daughter(s) initially provoke enmity but must finally signify the peace between the two generations. This intergenerational strife is implicit in Leonato's remark that Hero must be his daughter because Benedick was a child when she was conceived. Leonato, we may infer, is considerably older than Benedick. But intergenerational strife becomes explicit when Leonato and his brother challenge Claudio to a duel after the pretended death of Hero. Thus, the Prince and Claudio joke about these threats from “two old men without teeth” (ln. 2,207).

Innogen and Guendolene are not necessarily meant to be contrasted in Holinshed, but the Quarto of Much adoe indicates a possible rereading of Holinshed that underscores the divide between these two figures. For the Guendolene plot is also a part of Much adoe in the form of the merry warriors, Beatrice and Benedick, who do provide the play with a certain amount of contrast.10 Indeed, a “jades tricke” of inconstancy (ln. 140) may have been the initial provocation of their merry war just as Locrine's unfaithfulness led to his battle with his wife. But, whatever its ultimate cause, the continual “skirmish of wit” (lns. 60-61) between Beatrice and Benedick rivals and at times replaces the skirmishes confined to men only. Beatrice inaugurates her first skirmish of wit with Benedick as an interruption of the male banter over Hero: “I wonder that you will still be talking, signior Benedicke, no body markes you” (lns. 112-13). This remark effectively highlights herself and Benedick as combattants.

Reread in the context of Shakespeare's Sicily, the distinction between the two female types—Innogen and Guendolyne—becomes more pronounced. Benedick makes this distinction most explicit by dubbing Beatrice “my Ladie Tongue” (ln. 676), and, appropriately enough, the next and final appearance of Innogen in the play occurs during a scene that Beatrice dominates. Thus, subsequent Quarto stage directions read as follows: “Enter Leonato, his brother, his wife, Hero his daughter, and Beatrice his neece, and a kinsman” (lns. 415-16). On the other hand, modern editions of the play generally retain the “kinsman”—who is, as Stanley Wells writes, the “shade of a shade”—and remove Leonato's wife, whose lack of a name here suggests that she is beginning to fade from the play.

Despite such fading, however, the silence of Leonato's wife should provoke a rereading of those parts of the scene whose focus is speech. For if Innogen is on stage when Leonato blames Beatrice's lack of a husband on her shrewdness of “tongue” (ln. 433), their exchange becomes yet another triangular one. Innogen's silence both exemplifies Leonato's ideal of a wife and at the same time provides a vantage point from which Leonato's admonitions concerning the silence of wives can be reread and critiqued. Beatrice, at least, claims to be able to see a “church by day-light” (ln. 489), a formulation that suggests both the necessity and difficulty of perceiving the obvious. So, too, Innogen's silent presence as “wife” is both hard to avoid yet at the same time something to which we must return again and again to get. Significantly, Beatrice's reference to her own ability to see the institution of marriage for what it is gives the cue for the maskers to enter, and this sequence of events suggests that disguise is a recourse of both playwrights and social groups when awkward silences become too apparent. Nevertheless, at the same time, the attempt to hide what is there invites renewed scrutiny. Like Theobald's suppression of Innogen, the onslaught of the maskers has the potential to provoke a rereading of what their arrival obscures.

Innogen's silence, however, is doubly awkward. For it invites a rereading of the relations among the male characters of the play, too. Such rereading reveals that, despite the apparent fixity of the dramatis personae in modern editions of Much Ado, even the identities of some of the play's primary characters are tenuous and “ghostly.” Thus, the preposterousness of rereading Much Ado from the perspective of a marginal character indicates the instability of the play's center, too. Leonato, in particular, offers some surprises to the rereader of the play, since dramatis personae of modern editions of the play regularly echo the opening stage direction and identify him as “governor” of Messina. This identification then contributes to the apparent solidity of Leonato's authority.

The play's villain, however, provides a rather surprising bridge from Innogen to Leonato. The bastard John, dubbed “dumb John” in one stage direction of the Quarto of Much adoe (ln. 494), is the character whose silence provides the most explicit parallel to that of Innogen. “I am not of many wordes,” John tells Leonato in the first scene of the play (ln. 152), and this self-description (his first line) is often taken as a declaration of moroseness, or, as Hero puts it, “melancholy” (ln. 421). But John's lack of words should serve as a reminder that he, like Innogen, has been silently present during the banter over Hero's possible bastardy. Such banter does not directly allude to him, but it does highlight the stigma that sets him apart. As Jean Howard notes, women and bastards are the “natural and inevitable source of evil” in the play (175). Indeed, as a rebel who “of late stoode out” (lns. 362-63) against his brother, John is “trusted with a mussle” (ln. 372).

Given the dumbness of John, the silence of Leonato at crucial parts of the play is startling, for, unlike John, Leonato is a figure of supposedly legitimate authority. Yet a close rereading of the Quarto of Much adoe indicates a relative scarcity of references to Leonato's government. The opening stage direction of the play is in fact the only explicit textual basis for the designation of Leonato as governor of Messina. Neither in subsequent stage directions nor speech headings does Leonato ever reappear as “governor” of Messina. He is always Leonato. On the other hand, as the editor of the Arden Much Ado, A. R. Humphreys, has pointed out, other characters in the play are often identified in speech headings “by social function (Prince, Constable, Headborough) or morality trait (Bastard)” (78). Thus, for instance, one Quarto entrance reads “Enter Leonato, and the Constable, and the Headborough” (ln. 1,595), and the following entrance positions Leonato in a similar way amidst a different group of characters: “Enter Prince, Bastard, Leonato, Frier, Claudio, Benedicke, Hero, and Beatrice” (ln. 1,657). As far as textual evidence is concerned, both Dogberry's authority as constable and Don Pedro's as prince are more solid than Leonato's government of Messina.

Like the character of Innogen, Leonato's government of Messina is prominently introduced in the opening stage direction, only to be muted at crucial points of the play. As with Innogen, such muting then provides a kind of rereading of the opening stage directions. The Quarto of Much adoe, at least, does not so much solidly establish Leonato's government of Messina as make it a question to be asked again and again in the light of subsequent events. Thus, on the one hand, Dogberry and his cohorts do address Leonato as “your worship” (ln. 1,614), and Leonato does discharge the Watch of its prisoners, Borachio and Conrade. But this discharge occurs after the Watch and Sexton have done all the work—that of apprehending and examining the prisoners.

Borachio and Conrade, moreover, make their confession not to Leonato but to the prince. The two henchmen of Don John are under constabulary escort when Claudio asks Don Pedro to “Hearken after their offence” (ln. 2,296), and even Borachio requests that Don Pedro attend to what he has to say: “Sweete prince, … do you heare me” (lns. 2,312-13). As a hearer of Borachio's confession, Don Pedro presides over the crucial and long deferred revelation of the play while Leonato is offstage. When Leonato, accompanied by the Sexton, returns to the stage, he does so more in the capacity of an aggrieved father than the governor of Messina: “Art thou the slave that with thy breath hast killd / Mine innocent child?” (lns. 2,346-47). Only after Leonato has given ample vent to his paternal outrage does he officially claim the prisoners.

Who does govern Messina? This uncertainty is particularly acute in a play where power often manifests itself as the ability to hear what one wants to hear and silence everything else by remaining deaf to it.11 In particular, after the slandering of Hero, Leonato finds himself in the position of a suitor who cannot get an audience. “Heare you my Lords?” (ln. 2,128) Leonato asks as the prince and Claudio make haste to avoid him. An exchange follows in which Leonato and his brother challenge the two younger men to a duel but are not taken seriously. Finally, the combattants part on a note of willfull deafness:

My Lord, my Lord.
I will not heare you.

(lns. 2,194-95)

The Prince effectively silences Leonato by refusing to hear what he has to say. The speech headings further reinforce the disparity between the two men. Don Pedro is speaking as prince and Leonato as subject rather than governor. Even after the deception of Conrade and Borachio is revealed, Leonato does not quite regain his governing authority as far as the prince is concerned. Thus, in his apology to Leonato, the prince claims that “to satisfie this good old man” (ln. 2,361), he will “bend under any heavy waight, / That heele enioyne me to” (lns. 2,362-63). Leonato may be able to enjoin the Prince to make amends, but such injunctions will come from “a good old man” rather than governor.

The apparent fixity of Leonato's identity as governor of Messina in modern editions of Much Ado, however, makes the instability of Leonato's authority in the Quarto of Much adoe all the more interesting and surprising. That is, just as Theobald's excision of Innogen contributes to the impact of her presence in the Quarto, so the play's undermining of Leonato's position acquires at least some of its significance preposterously—after that position has been established not only in the text of the play but its editing and reproduction as well. I am not, therefore, postulating a seventeenth-century first reading of Leonato's character that would be the same as my own rereading of it. Yet, as Margreta de Grazia puts it, once scholars begin to critique the eighteenth-century editorial assumptions about textual authenticity that mediate our understanding of Shakespeare “[i]t becomes possible to look for phenomena that have been minimized, transformed, or excluded by its preparation or ‘speaking beforehand’” (13). Nevertheless, such speaking beforehand is the necessary prologue to the retrieval of excluded or minimized phenomena such as the identities of Innogen and Leonato. Innogen's exclusion from later editions of the play spotlights, for the rereader, at least, her appearance in the Quarto.

More broadly, Shakespeare cannot be “unedited”—a form of rereading—until he has been thoroughly read, digested, and reconfigured in the adaptations of textual editors. Thus, despite its critique of eighteenth-century precursors, the project of “unediting” Shakespeare can be located squarely in an eighteenth-century tradition of textual editing. As Samuel Johnson put it, the first move of any textual editor is to “demolish the fabricks which are standing”—i.e., the work of preceding editors (“Preface to Shakespeare, 1765” 99). Yet such acts of demolition are never complete, as Johnson knew only too well. To reread the Quarto of Much adoe is to regain the lost element of surprise, but we must acknowledge the degree to which this surprise is combined with and even a function of Prospero-like jadedness rather than a rediscovery of the role of Miranda. For the perspective of a rereader is necessarily skewed. After centuries of editing and reading, the smallest details of the play loom large to us as they may not have to a seventeenth-century audience or readership. This does not mean that seventeenth-century first reactions to the play can never be hypothesized or, to some degree, recovered. Rather, we must be wary of making the goal of unediting Shakespeare that of approaching him “free of prior interpretation,” as McLeod puts it, and thus of denying our own status as rereaders.12 For this goal is not historicism but rather the desire to recapture innocence.13


  1. See Berger's Imaginary Audition 1-42. Berger is responding to Richard Levin's explicit critique of rereading Renaissance plays in New Readings vs. Old Plays. See Levin 1-10 and 194-207, where he links endless rereadings of Shakespeare and other Renaissance dramatists to both the New Criticism and the professionalization of literary studies as well as its attendant requirement to “publish or perish.” Berger engages Levin and his followers at the level of the stage/page debate, which he implicitly evokes. Thus, Levin supports an attitude of “humility” toward the “critical tradition that has been formed by generations of viewers and readers” (201). In other words, Levin argues that the significance of Renaissance plays was relatively stable for spectators and readers until the advent of the professional journal and the New Critical “reading,” which dissolved the harmony of page and stage. Another great vulnerability of Levin's attack, however, is the historical fact that the texts of Renaissance plays have never been stable and thus neither have performances of the plays. It should be noted, for instance, that my “with all” is taken from the notes to the Tempest in the Riverside Shakespeare, which show that the Folio reading is “with all,” a reading subsequently emended by Theobald (1637).

    I will be using “rereading” to include both the activities of a viewer who sees the play more than once and the armchair Shakespearean. It is also worth noting that the two are not mutually exclusive. Thus, for instance, like numerous Shakespearean quartos, the Quarto of Much adoe about Nothing is advertised on its title page as the text of what “hath been sundrie times publikely acted”—a formulation that suggests the possibility of spectators buying the text of a play that they had seen on stage and liked. Despite such links, however, the play as book is undoubtedly more easily reread than the play as performance. Thus, one can see an entire performance again and again, but only a book allows for the rereading of particular scenes and lines. Even the VCR is not the technological match of the book as far as rereading goes. On the VCR it is possible to return to a particular scene or line, but the reviewer is not equidistant from all parts of the play as is the rereader of a book. With its need of being rewound, the VCR is more at the level of the scroll or volumen rather than the codex, much less the printed book.

  2. See Desmet 8-9 for a discussion of “reading” Shakespeare that includes the plays in performance.

  3. Of course, problems of textual instability accompany the editing and criticism of virtually every writer. Nevertheless, Shakespearean texts display such instability to an unusually high degree.

  4. Whether Restoration audiences experienced this kind of shock, however, is debatable.

  5. I take the phrase “unediting Shakespeare” from Randall McLeod's “UNEditing Shak-Speare,” but, for other examples of this kind of important work, see also McLeod's “Unemending Shakespeare's Sonnet 111,” and “The Marriage of Good and Bad Quartos.” On the editing of King Lear see the essays in The Division of Kingdoms: Shakespeare's Two Versions of King Lear, ed. Gary Taylor and Michael Warren, eds., The Division of Kingdoms: Shakespeare's Two Versions of King Lear (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1983). See also Peter Stallybrass and Margreta de Grazia, “The Materiality of the Shakespearean Text,” as well as de Grazia's Shakespeare Verbatim: The Reproduction of Authenticity and the 1790 Apparatus.

  6. For discussion of Innogen, see the Variorum Much Ado 7: In a long textual note, the editors of the New Folger Shakespeare suggest that Innogen should constitute a “silent presence” in the play (Mowat and Werstine 199). But the text of their edition and that of all other contemporary editions that I have seen follows Theobald. The Variorum edition of the play does include Innogen, but it contains a good deal of editorial skepticism about her. My own argument is based upon the Quarto Much adoe, not because I think that the Quarto is necessarily more authoritative or authorial than the Folio Much adoe about Nothing, but, in part, because the Quarto has traditionally served as the foundation of later editions of the play. It is worth noting, however, that Innogen was not expunged from the Folio but appears in the same places there as in the Quarto (First Folio 101 and 104). On the dangers of making unwarranted assumptions about the relative authority of the Folio and Quarto editions of Shakespeare's plays, see Werstine, “McKerrow's Suggestion,” 157-59 and 166-68. For work on stage directions, including speech headings, see Linda McJannet's “Elizabethan Speech Prefixes: Page Design, Typography, and Mimesis” as well as Anthony Hammond's “Encounters of the Third Kind in Stage-Directions in Elizabethan and Jacobean Drama.” The source for Innogen may be Messer Lionato's unnamed wife in “La Prima Parte de le Nouvelle del Bandello.” See Geoffrey Bullough, Narrative and Dramatic Sources of Shakespeare 112-34. Messer Lionato's wife is more a part of the plot than Shakespeare's Innogen. Shakespeare seems to have been more interested in Innogen as a name and a silent presence.

  7. See Patricia Parker's “Preposterous Events” for more on the “Shakespearean preposterous.” For the most part Parker is discussing events within the plays, but she does give some indication of how preposterousness might be extended to the editing of the plays when she critiques the “critical construction of Shakespeare as an object of study, which … still reads back into the plays assumptions of stability, that straighten out the scandal of their ‘deformity,’ lost earlier versions, reassigned speeches, missing characters, or the logic of narrative or chronological lines” (212). For more on reading Shakespeare's plays “backwards,” see Berger, Imaginary Audition 35-37.

  8. Frye makes the point about Sicily and the repetition of names in Cymbeline as part of a larger argument about the relation of Shakespearean comedy to romance (65). Interestingly, the issue of Imogen's name in Cymbeline also depends upon the page/stage debate. Simon Foreman's account of a contemporary performance of the play lists Imogen as Innogen, and thus Roger Warren has recently argued that the name Imogen in the Folio Cymbeline is a mistake (viii). Imogen, however, is a richly suggestive name—a cross, perhaps, between Innogen and “image.” In Cymbeline Imogen at times both thwarts and encourages the implication of her name that she will be a silent image. Thus, rejecting Cloten's advances, Imogen claims to be an unwilling speaker: “But that you shall not say, I yield being silent, / I would not speak.” She also apologizes for forgetting a “Ladies manners” and being “so verball” (First Folio 377). Here, she claims to speak only out of necessity, but, unlike her namesake in Much adoe, she does speak.

  9. See Jonathon Goldberg, Voice Terminal Echo 68-101. Goldberg's analysis of all that is in a Shakespearean name is one model for what I am trying to do with the name Innogen.

  10. Leonard Digges's tribute to Shakespeare, published in the 1640 Poems (London: John Benson) alludes to Much Ado in a way that makes Beatrice and Benedick its central attraction (Brian Vickers, ed., Shakespeare: The Critical Heritage 28). This allusion provides another way of rereading the play and giving it new emphases.

  11. See Harry Berger's “Against the Sink-a-Pace: Sexual and Family Politics in Much Ado about Nothing” for more on hearing and its lapses in the play.

  12. See “Unemending Shakespeare's Sonnet 111” 96.

  13. My thanks to David Galef and Marcia Worth-Baker for rereading this essay many times and giving me a number of valuable suggestions.

Works Cited

Berger, Harry. “Against the Sink-a-Pace: Sexual and Family Politics in Much Ado about Nothing.Shakespeare Quarterly 33 (1982): 302-14.

———. Imaginary Audition: Shakespeare on Stage and Page. Berkeley: U of California P, 1989.

Bergeron, David. Reading and Writing in Shakespeare. Newark: Delaware UP, 1996.

Bullough, Geoffrey. Narrative and Dramatic Sources of Shakespeare: The Comedies, 1597-1603. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1958.

de Grazia, Margreta. Shakespeare Verbatim: The Reproduction of Authenticity and the 1790 Apparatus. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1991.

Desmet, Christy. Reading Shakespeare's Characters: Rhetoric, Ethics, and Identity. Amherst: Massachusetts UP, 1992.

Ferguson, Margaret W., Maureen Quilligan, and Nancy J. Vickers. Rewriting the Renaissance: The Discourses of Sexual Difference in Early Modern Europe. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1986.

Friedman, Michael D. “‘Hush'd on purpose to grace harmony’: Wives and Silence in Much Ado about Nothing.Shakespearean Criticism Yearbook 1990. Ed. Sandra L. Williamson. Vol. 13. Detroit: Gale Research, 1990. 45-52.

Frye, Northrop. A Natural Perspective: The Development of Shakespearean Comedy and Romance. New York: Columbia UP, 1965.

Goldberg, Jonathan. Voice Terminal Echo: Postmodernism and English Renaissance Texts. New York: Methuen, 1986.

Hammond, Anthony. “Encounters of the Third Kind in Stage-Directions in Elizabethan and Jacobean Drama.” Studies in Philology 89 (1992): 71-99.

Holinshed, Raphael. Holinshed's Chronicles of England, Scotland, and Ireland. London: J. Johnson, 1807.

Howard, Jean. “Renaissance Antitheatricality and the Politics of Gender and Rank in Much Ado about Nothing.Shakespeare Reproduced: The Text in History and Ideology. Eds. Jean Howard and Marion F. O'Conner. New York: Methuen, 1987. 163-88.

Johnson, Samuel. Johnson on Shakespeare. Ed. Arthur Sherbo. New Haven: Yale UP, 1968.

Kastan, David Scott, and Peter Stallybrass. Staging the Renaissance: Reinterpretations of Elizabethan and Jacobean Drama. New York: Routledge, 1991.

Levin, Richard. New Readings vs. Old Plays: Recent Trends in the Interpretation of Renaissance Drama. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1979.

Luckyj, Christina. “‘A Moving Rhetoricke’: Women's Silences and Renaissance Texts.” Renaissance Drama 24 (1993): 33-57.

McEachern, Claire. “Fathering Herself: A Source Study of Shakespeare's Feminism.” Shakespeare Quarterly 39 (1988): 269-91.

McGuire, Philip. Speechless Dialect: Shakespeare's Open Silences. Berkeley: U of California P, 1985.

McJannet, Linda. “Elizabethan Speech Prefixes: Page Design, Typography, and Mimesis.” Bergeron 50-70.

McKerrow, R. B. “A Suggestion Regarding Shakespeare's Manuscripts.” Review of English Studies 11 (1935): 459-65.

McLeod, Randall. “The Marriage of Good and Bad Quartos.” Shakespeare Quarterly 33 (1982): 421-33.

———. “‘The very names of Persons’: Editing and the Invention of Dramatick Character.” Kastan and Stallybrass 88-96.

———. “UNEditing Shak-Speare.” Substance 33-34. (1981): 26-56.

———. “Unemending Shakespeare's Sonnet 111.” Studies in English Literature 21 (1981): 75-96.

Orgel, Stephen. “Prospero's Wife.” Ferguson, Quilligan, and Vickers 50-64.

Parker, Patricia. “Preposterous Events.” Shakespeare Quarterly 43 (1992): 186-214.

Shakespeare, William. First Folio of Shakespeare. Prepared by Charlton Hinman. New York: Norton, 1968.

———. Hamlet. Ed. Harold Jenkins. The Arden Shakespeare. London: Methuen, 1982.

———. Much Ado about Nothing. The Arden Shakespeare. Ed. A. R. Humphreys. London: Methuen, 1981.

———. Much Ado about Nothing. A New Variorum Edition. Ed. Horace Howard Furness. Philadelphia: Lippincott, 1899.

———. Much adoe about Nothing (1600). Prepared by Charlton Hinman. Shakespeare Quarto Facsimiles. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1971.

———. Much Ado about Nothing. Eds. Barbara Mowat and Paul Werstine. New York: Washington Square Press, 1995.

———. The Tempest. The Riverside Shakespeare. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1974. 1,606-41.

Smidt, Kristian. “Shakespeare's Absent Characters.” English Studies 61 (1980): 397-407.

Stallybrass, Peter, and Margreta de Grazia. “The Materiality of the Shakespearean Text.” Shakespeare Quarterly 44 (1993): 255-83.

Vickers, Brian, ed. Shakespeare, The Critical Heritage: 1623-1692. Vol. 1. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1974.

Warren, Michael, and Gary Taylor, eds. The Division of Kingdoms: Shakespeare's Two Versions of King Lear. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1983.

Warren, Roger. Cymbeline: Shakespeare in Performance. Manchester: Manchester UP, 1988.

Wells, Stanley. “Editorial Treatment of Foul-Paper Texts: Much Ado about Nothing as Test Case.” The Review of English Studies 31 (1980): 1-17.

Werstine, Paul. “McKerrow's Suggestion and Twentieth-Century Shakespeare Textual Criticism.” Renaissance Drama 29 (1988): 149-73.

Gabriella Boston (review date 16 November 2002)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

SOURCE: Boston, Gabriella. Review of Much Ado about Nothing. Washington Times (16 November 2002): D2.

[In the following review, Boston admires the Jazz Age setting of director Mark Lamos's 2002 Shakespeare Theatre production of Much Ado about Nothing and praises Karen Ziemba's compelling performance in the role of Beatrice.]

Much Ado About Nothing at the Shakespeare Theatre is really something. It's energetic and funny, with fantastic acting and a set design that transports the audience back to F. Scott Fitzgerald land.

What better time in which to set this—one of Shakespeare's lightest comedies—than in the fun-filled Roaring '20s?

Much Ado, like many of the Bard's plays, revolves around mistaken identities, two couples in love and a mean-spirited, melancholy bad guy as well as an upstanding, refined good guy, who doubles as a matchmaker.

One couple—Beatrice, played by the radiant Karen Ziemba, and Benedick, played by funnyman Dan Snook—provide most of the comedy. They do it through body language, witty lines, dances and slapstick, eliciting plenty of chuckles and laughs from the audience.

Shortly after the curtain rises—revealing a bright green lawn, manicured bushes and long white balustrades (the makings of a '20s estate)—the two Bs tell us they have sworn off love, which in Shakespearean lingo means they are bound for each other's arms, but only after a bunch of twists and turns in the plotline.

The other couple, of the traditionally romantic ilk, consists of Hero, played charmingly by Kathleen Early, and her blond suitor, Claudio, played by Barrett Foa (who looks as if he's barely out of high school).

The matchmaker for both couples is Don Pedro, Claudio's brother, played by the handsome Peter Rini; he gives his role just the right balance of dignity and playfulness.

Enter the bad guy: Don John, illegitimate brother of Don Pedro, played by Glenn Fleshler, who gives a good amount of disdain for the happy and beautiful.

Don John convinces young Claudio that Hero is being unfaithful, and chaos reigns. Hero is abandoned by almost everyone at the altar where she was to be married to Claudio.

Even her father, Leonato, played by a delightful Michael Santo, scorns her and leaves her, collapsed in a puddle of tears.

Beatrice and Benedick, as well as a good-natured friar played by Edwin C. Owens, stay to console her. The two Bs vow to make things right.

The comedy that ensues includes funny, fast-paced performances by watchmen Daniel Stowell and Marsh Hanson. Hero's gentlewomen, played by Jordan Simmons and Celia Madeoy, are also a vibrant part of the farce (showing Shakespeare's affinity for creating comedy among common men as well as high-class folks).

The true star of this performance is Miss Ziemba. She is commanding in her role, showing her amazing range as Beatrice as she goes from happy to sad and flirtatious to compassionate.

A few steps behind Miss Ziemba in skill and radiance is Mr. Snook. His body language and grimaces are as funny as the lines he delivers, and he shows the kind of stage confidence his role as a womanizer and jester demands.

Both actors show great skill in making the transition from being standoffish to being very much in love with each other.

Enhancing Miss Ziemba's and Mr. Snook's colorful performances are the peppy set design by Riccardo Hernandez and costumes by Catherine Zuber, which include hip-hugging dresses that look particularly festive during what feels like an impromptu Charleston.

The music, directed by Lynne Shankel, plays an important mood-setting role in this production. When things are happy, the music belongs to the jazz age, and when things take a turn for the worse, Shakespeare's near-contemporary J. S. Bach takes over, providing the right kind of solemnity.

Director Mark Lamos does a fine job of bringing out the best in this old, oft-played comedy while adding a few new touches. The casting is fabulous, the idea of bringing musical elements into the mix is innovative, and setting the plot in the '20s is engaging.

This excellent production is not to be missed.

Morriss Henry Partee (essay date 1992)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

SOURCE: Partee, Morriss Henry. “The Comic Equilibrium of Much Ado about Nothing.Upstart Crow 12 (1992): 60-73.

[In the following essay, Partee probes the thematic conflicts of Much Ado about Nothing by exploring the play's structural tensions between comedy and tragedy. The critic also 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.]

Finding the balance between the two plots of Much Ado About Nothing continues to challenge readers. While most critics agree that Claudio's relationship with Hero forms the underlying structure of the play, the Benedick and Beatrice material has always attracted far more interest and acclaim. This fascination with the background or subplot calls into question Shakespeare's artistry—the ponderous comedy of situation may seem unworthy to co-exist with, much less to contain, the brilliant light-hearted comedy of manners. Such a literary reading proceeds from the questionable assumption that every dramatic figure should have the full panoply of emotional depth assigned to actual people. The diversity of attributes assigned to Benedick and Beatrice naturally offers the intuitions of critics far more scope for explication than does the relatively straightforward narrative of attraction, betrayal, and reconciliation that surround Hero and Claudio. On the other hand, respect for the play's original (and primary) status as an immediate dramatic production may correct this distortion of the subsequent literary artifact. Attention to the temporal succession of episodes in performance (whether publicly in the theater or privately in the study) reveals a superb generation and release of tension in the small world of Messina.

Framed by the ongoing broader political antagonism of Don Pedro and Don John of Arragon, Much Ado About Nothing successfully tempers the potential tragedy of Claudio's actions with the resolution of the deep-seated conflict between Benedick and Beatrice. The momentary hiatus in the antagonism between the brothers from Arragon offers the bastard the opportunity for introducing his machinations into the fragile arena of Messina. This displaced animosity complicates the transition of Count Claudio from his prior military obligation to Don Pedro to the romantic concerns long held by Benedick, his new friend and social inferior. To mute the effect of such intense animosity in the main plot, Shakespeare not only employs superficial, often incoherent characterization but also implants extensive implausibility into the action. These logical discontinuities help the audience to look past local incidents of emotional involvement with these one-dimensional dramatic figures. In addition, the playwright creates a background of unusual vitality. The emergence of Beatrice and Benedick from their isolation and underlying melancholy generates sufficient interest to help distance the intense confrontation of the primary action. The play's comic irresolution into forgiveness ultimately detaches all characters from the consequences of their action. Much ado fades into nothingness.


Shakespeare encapsulates the tension surrounding Claudio's betrayal of Hero in the church scene by placing this potentially tragic action within the broader context of Don Pedro's inexplicable incursion into Messina. Assigning the glory of the military overthrow of Don John to Count Claudio, Shakespeare gives Don Pedro chiefly personal and political authority. Therefore, the ruler of Arragon must bear full responsibility for casually introducing the malevolence of his illegitimate sibling into the unsuspecting and defenseless society of Messina. Moreover, this leader not only fails to provide subsequent monitoring of his brother's activities but also offers the opportunity for the bastard's machinations. Neglecting political responsibility, Don Pedro demonstrates interest primarily in socializing with Leonato and confirming his subordinates in marriage. The shadow brother simply takes his cues from Don Pedro. Perverting the theatrical devices which Don Pedro benignly uses to secure the marriages of his subordinates, Don John continually seeks to “appropriate a power the play seeks to lodge with the legitimate brother.”1

Shakespeare circumscribes the ability of Don Pedro to function as a stabilizing force in this work. Although the play gives no definitive age for him, his susceptibility to the conspiracy of Don John, his status as a potential lover, and his close association with the exceptionally young Claudio could suggest youth and inexperience.2 And although the alliance of Claudio and Don Pedro appears secure—indeed, Richard A. Levin3 argues their relationship to be excessively enmeshed—even the secluded Hero knows that political relationships are inherently unstable.4 Moreover, further distancing his status as a ruler from the focus of the play, Don Pedro's ambiguous role as a potential lover himself challenges class structure. Where even Hero, the daughter of the governor of Messina, is beneath his birth (II. i. 165), Don Pedro's proposal of marriage to the dependent Beatrice reveals a disregard for his social obligations to his state (II. i. 326; II. iii. 168-70).5

The highly structured and fragile society in Messina magnifies the impact of such destabilizing forces. Whereas Venice always represents an exotic and sophisticated city for Shakespeare, Messina—which can with reasonable confidence rely on the watch of Dogberry for security—suddenly receives an influx of a conspicuously cosmopolitan army: Don Pedro of Arragon, Claudio of Florence, and Benedick of Padua. “Messina is at once a world with too much control and too little—the worst of all possibilities since it causes confusion and anger, as well as the feeling of being manipulated.”6 The absence of an alternate, more ideal, world intensifies the sense of compression and magnifies the impact of scandal as Shakespeare portrays “the absoluteness of the evil of slander.”7 The unquestioned acceptance of patriarchal authority heightens the sense of constriction. Although the dependent Beatrice can flaunt these demands with impunity, Hero (like Cordelia in King Lear) manifests—at least on the surface—an almost supernal docility concerning her marriage.8

The governor of this city, the aged and feeble Leonato, demonstrates neither insight nor authority. A clear terminus to his authority already appears in the emphasis on his having only one child, a female in an intensely patriarchal society (I. i. 294-95; IV. i. 127-28). His primary function—besides welcoming Don Pedro to Messina—consists of enunciating the expectations of the patriarchy to Hero. An uneasy mixture of violence and passivity, this figure alternates between raging at Hero and railing at her abusers (IV. i. 190-200; V. i. 45-109). Lack of a strong secular center of political authority necessitates the sudden insertion of the Friar as the agent of social reconciliation. Leonato then lapses into almost complete submission: “Being that I flow in grief, / The smallest twine may lead me” (IV. i. 249-50). Nor does he develop initiative. When the watch has vindicated Hero, his determined refusal to confront disruptive influences (V. i. 259-61) resembles more the ineptitude to which Dogberry counsels the watch (III. iii. 28-82) than the rage of an abused father and magistrate.

An awareness of time's passing gives an undercurrent of urgency to Much Ado About Nothing. Reflecting comedy's typical employment of the fantasy of a timeless eternity, Beatrice contemplates an eternity of jesting with bachelors in heaven (II. i. 48-49), while Hero fantasizes about being married forever tomorrow (III. i. 101). But more profoundly, the special characteristics of this play come from “the manner in which ‘time and place’ do not ‘cease to matter,’ but matter very greatly.”9 The spacial limitation of the setting solely to Messina emphasizes the effect of time on the characters. Even the bland Hero has melancholy premonitions of the future; her heart is exceedingly heavy as she thinks of her wedding dress (III. iv. 24-25). Beatrice more specifically foresees the decay of marital relationships (II. i. 72-80), and Benedick laments the ephemerality of reputation (V. ii. 77-80). Timing, of course, profoundly affects the plot. Dogberry's inability to communicate his apprehension of the malefactors to Leonato in timely fashion precipitates the anguish of Hero; the news of Don John's stealthy departure comes just in time to confirm the confessions of Borachio and Conrade.

The compression of the ambience of Messina encourages the audience to see a personal inertia in the dramatic figures. The pun on the similar pronunciation of nothing and noting in the title of the play immediately introduces the theme of static contemplation. The lack of autonomy of the characters reduces them to mere noting or observing of others.10 Claudio has carefully noted Hero before going to war (I. i. 298), and the sparring of Beatrice and Benedick necessarily proceeds from close observation of each other. The plot itself depends on even more disengagement: eavesdropping or overhearing dominates the action. Dogberry instructs the watch to observe but not to apprehend malefactors. Don Pedro and Claudio are content merely to overhear the supposed infidelity of Hero. Obviously, a less emotionally restricted Claudio would have immediately confronted the woman he supposes to be Hero and her paramour, thus exposing the stratagem of Don John. And, of course, a major source of humor in the play derives from the benign gulling of Beatrice and Benedick as they listen in on supposedly private counsels.

This temperamental passivity leads to a dangerous deadening of the intellect in the dramatic figures. “Throughout the play every character is required to observe and judge, and almost every character judges poorly.”11 All levels of society are affected. The highly placed Don Pedro and Claudio as well as Leonato misjudge Hero while the lowly Dogberry can see the ignorance of Verges, but not his own (III. v. 9-12). Incapable of focusing on any topic and bewildered by words, Dogberry can penetrate the treachery of Borachio only by implausible fortune. Throughout the play this constable maintains his concern for dignity; he fears (correctly) that the villains do not respect his place and years (IV. ii. 74-75). Neither Benedick nor Beatrice can see through the deception of the overhearing, and even when they are teased later, they show no indignation at being manipulated. All of the lovers in this romantic comedy must rely on external agents to establish satisfactory relationships. Benedick and Beatrice as well as Claudio “suffer from self-absorption, with its corollary of misplaced faith in the sufficiency of one's own knowledge, and thus all three are easily led into mistakes about themselves and about others.”12 A complete resolution of this stubbornness is far from assured. Benedick concludes with his determination to be indifferent to the opinions of others. “Since I do purpose to marry, I will think nothing to any purpose that the world can say against it, and therefore never flout at me for what I have said against it” (V. iv. 105-08).

The conspicuous sexual tension which so obviously drives Claudio's aggression towards Hero transpires against a subtle background of the melancholy surrounding the minor characters. Shakespeare assigns some interiority to the buffoon Dogberry by the startling discordant revelation that this constable has had losses (IV. ii. 84). And we discover that Hero and Beatrice have “noted” the dour expression of the caged and defanged Don John (II. i. 3-5). The humor surrounding Benedick and Beatrice especially derives from compensation for unhappiness. The past in Much Ado About Nothing holds few explicitly pleasant memories for these socially subordinate characters. We find that the mother of Beatrice cried as her daughter was born (II. i. 334-35), and at the news of Hero's engagement, Beatrice declares herself to be sunburned and unmarriageable. Benedick likewise has difficulty in securing longterm relationships. According to Beatrice, Benedick has trouble keeping friends, possibly because of his excessive dependency on them (I. i. 86-90). Isolation intensifies grief. Benedick aptly declares that “every one can master a grief but he that has it” (III. ii. 28-29). Like Brabantio in Othello and Macduff in Macbeth, Leonato scornfully refuses verbal consolation. Declaring his radically unique status, the grieving father would admit only a person with a mirror image of his suffering to offer comfort (V. i. 5-32).

Exclusive focus by critics on the compensating mechanism of wit generated between Benedick and Beatrice improperly ignores the underlying distress that necessitates the humor in the first place. Both figures show signs of continued injury caused by the verbal thrusts within the play. Although the merry war between Beatrice and Benedick offers the conventional society of Messina a momentary release from its tedium (I. i. 61-64), Beatrice recalls with some chagrin the earlier disruption of her relationship with Benedick (II. i. 278-82). Skillfully mocking Benedick's military and personal standing with Claudio and Don Pedro, Beatrice taunts Benedick by saying that as the Prince's jester he is often not noticed, but laughed at and beaten. Then he falls into a melancholy and does not eat (II. i. 146-150). Benedick worries about the possible truth of this jest, and indeed in act five Don Pedro and Claudio seek him out to amuse themselves (V. i. 122-24). And on the other hand, Benedick ridicules not only the appearance but also the wit of Beatrice, her one defense against her inherent lack of social standing as a poor relation of Leonato.

Verbal hostility extends far beyond these two sparring lovers. From the beginning, a constant verbal sparring tempers the emotional bonding between friends. A persistent, low-grade irritability persists throughout the entourage both of Don Pedro and Leonato. Benedick sneers at Claudio's interest in love just as Margaret will jibe at the newly smitten Beatrice later. This barely disguised hostility comes closer to the surface in the “honest slanders” (III. i. 84) which Hero applies to the hidden Beatrice (III. i), Claudio to the hidden Benedick (II. iii). Whereas socially mandated decorum initially maintains cordiality between the two leaders themselves, Leonato unproductively confronts Don Pedro and Claudio while awaiting vindication of Hero. And Claudio in his turn displays an unseemly contempt for the old man who was to be and is to be his father-in-law (V. i. 115-16).

The ubiquitous references to adultery and illegitimacy provide an ominous social context for the extreme innocence of Claudio. The malevolent Don John, of course, represents the tangible embodiment of bastardy. None of the figures in this play find that moral codes materially aid them in managing the torment and frustration arising from their fundamental ambivalence concerning chastity and sexuality.13 Jealousy powerfully drives Claudio to suspect first Don Pedro and then the illusory lover of Hero. Although Claudio demonstrates sufficient eloquence among his fellow males, he cannot verbally woo Hero. This lack of intellectual communication finds a counterpart in his emotional retardation. Oblivious to the difficulty in radical changes in human bonding patterns, he glorifies his absolutely platonic relationship with Hero as the necessary legitimate precursor to marriage (IV. i. 53-54).

Nevertheless, jesting can offer some relief. Words have, as Beatrice recognizes, a power to keep people “on the windy side of care” (II. i. 315). The alternative to revealing one's sorrow is to “waste inwardly” (III. i. 78). “The play's lighthearted, witty bawdy expresses and mutes sexual anxieties; it turns them into a communal joke and provides comic release and relief in specific ways.”14 Accordingly, Leonato jests publicly about the possible illegitimacy of Hero, and Benedick constantly reflects his masculine insecurity concerning being cuckolded. Beatrice herself recognizes the possibility of Benedick's impregnating her. She would not have him put her down, lest she “should prove the mother of fools” (II. i. 286).

However entertaining in itself, the gulling of Beatrice and Benedick nevertheless introduces a potentially tragic antagonism into the unravelling of the primary plot. As in A Midsummer Night's Dream, the leader—here Don Pedro—suggests a dramatic entertainment for alleviation of the frustrations attendant upon upcoming nuptials. Accordingly, in language of violence which constantly recognizes an intrusion upon the autonomy of Beatrice and Benedick, the conspirators seek to incorporate the wounded, but fiercely independent, agents into the general amorous ambience of Messina. The virtually instantaneous success of the schemers testifies to the fragility of the delusional—indeed self-destructive (III. i. 26-28)—animosity which has been generating the verbal sparring of the two. Nevertheless, social honor stands in the way of true intimacy. Stripping the focus of authority from the friar, Beatrice abjures the passivity of Leonato. She would have Benedick “Kill Claudio” (IV. i. 289). Such fierce loyalty to her friend, however intrinsically admirable, under the best circumstances offers a momentary threat to the ultimate harmonious union of a repentant Claudio and a vindicated Hero. At the worst outcome, this action of revenge against the young and formidable warrior could very well result in the death of her lover. Transposed into the genre of romance, Claudio as “an apprentice Othello” could easily kill someone, and Benedick certainly lacks the heroic stature of his literary predecessor, the Rinaldo of Ariosto's Orlando Furioso.15 Beatrice (and the audience) would have no way of knowing at this point that mere dismissal would greet Benedick's challenge to Claudio (V. i. 145-50).

The major tension of the play, of course, derives from Claudio's repudiation of Hero. The brittleness of this society and the explicit presentation of this attack on stage give this episode an unusual, almost inappropriate, weight. Reverberations of the passion displayed in the church scene make problematic any easy resolution into unrestrained good cheer. The personal authority of Rosalind will enable the audience to look past the attempted fratricide which underlies As You Like It, and the resilience of Viola will help shift our focus from the social unrest in the court of Orsino and in the household of Olivia in Twelfth Night. But in Much Ado About Nothing Hero lacks the personal dimension and Beatrice lacks the social standing to intervene effectively; as “obsessed by illusory dishonor, the Bastard's dupes intensify their own serio-comic ordeals.”16 The brutal public denouncement of Hero's supposed private sins generates not only her humiliation but also the intense anger of her father first towards her and then towards her accusers. Shakespeare certainly set himself a challenge to maintain a comic equilibrium in the midst of such raw tensions.


The energy with which Shakespeare invests the conflicts in Much Ado About Nothing requires a variety of on-going powerful devices to drain away the tension. Exaggerated implausibilities within the plot itself help to segment the potentially tragic action into episodes of merely comic intensity. The title's combination of energy and negation in its “much ado” and “nothing” has identified for the audience the ultimate lack of meaning at the outset of the performance; evil (represented by the one-dimensional Don John) has initially no cause and finally no effect. Whereas cunning in a motiveless malignancy like Iago would threaten the equilibrium of any play, here Don John lacks initiative and perspicacity. Completely out of touch with social and personal issues, he seems to believe firmly that Don Pedro truly woos Hero for himself (II. i. 155-57). Moreover, he relies entirely on Borachio for planning the deception of Claudio. A self-proclaimed plain dealing villain, he resorts to the coarsest of subterfuges. Appropriately, the least sophisticated clown in Shakespearean comedies foils this one-dimensional villain; full revelation of his duplicity can be only a matter of course—when, not if.

Despite the intensity of Claudio's confrontation with Hero, Shakespeare surrounds this encounter with sufficient absurdity to allow the audience a measure of comic detachment. First, we might reasonably expect the rumors and uncertainty surrounding Don Pedro's intentions in wooing Hero to have warned all concerned about jumping to conclusions in subsequent matters of wooing. Especially dubious would be any insights from Don John, who eagerly verified the rumor about the supposed treachery of his brother (II. i. 169-70). Second, obscurity surrounds the chamber-window scene, an event “whose non-representation is a precise corollary of its inscrutability.”17 Whereas a tragedy will place on stage Othello's overhearing of Cassio's supposed gloating to Iago of the infidelity of Desdemona, we learn about this deception in the comedy through the narration by the drunken Borachio (III. iii. 144-63), “a virtuoso display of lateral thinking.”18 We thus see the results of Don Pedro's own account of this episode (IV. i. 88-94) already knowing of the detection of the subterfuge. Third, Shakespeare gives no plausible explanation concerning the substitution of Margaret for Hero. Although Beatrice has been her bedfellow for the entire previous year, neither she nor Hero offers any reason for this particular hiatus.

The lack of diverse characteristics assigned to the figures in the main plot helps the audience focus on the external plot rather than conjecturing about some pain in an imaginary felt life. The major characters manifest a comic inconsistency rather than a tragic complexity. The conventional comic exclusion of productive work from the focus of the play prevents them from striking the audience with full humanity. The cessation of the civil war in Arragon leads to an indefinite holiday in Messina, a location where the primary enterprise consists of romance. Only a few of the lesser figures—the friar, the sexton, the boy—and the incompetent watch engage in their professional activities. This limitation of necessary human activity automatically eliminates a major source of character depth. The ineluctable ambiguity surrounding Don Pedro, the most powerful authority in the play, frustrates his emergence as a sympathetic, coherent character. He remains forever trapped within the layers of the playwright's revisions; the text itself, probably deriving from Shakespeare's foul-papers, offers “a becoming, a process, not a finished product.”19 Prospective characters such as the wife of Leonato and the son of Antonio appear in hints, only to vanish into wordless, actionless oblivion.20 Thus we should not be too surprised that Don Pedro's initial status as a rival lover to Claudio conflicts with his later role as a genial “love-god” (II. i. 384-86). “The misapprehension of the father and uncle as to who the suitor is, since it promises a contretemps which never in fact occurs, has the effect of a false start.”21 As I have argued concerning the Antonio of The Merchant of Venice,22 Don Pedro fades from his early significance as the pace of the play speeds increasingly toward the reconciliation and marriage of the young lovers. Originally the heroic conqueror of Don John, Don Pedro becomes merely a fellow penitent with Claudio, and he simply joins Leonato and his brother, the insignificant Antonio,23 as one of the triad of uninvolved spectators to the nuptials of the reconciled young lovers.

The character inconsistency of the confederates involved in defaming Hero with the window scene cuts deeply into the plausibility of the action. Margaret in particular remains an enigma. A close friend of Hero as well as a witty and generally sympathetic figure, she apparently participates vigorously and convincingly in the treacherous impersonation of Hero. Despite the improbability of her remaining naïve during such an extended charade, Borachio declares that she had no awareness of the circumstances surrounding her role of mimicking Hero (V. i. 300-03). Presumably present along with the entire entourage of Hero at the wedding, Margaret nevertheless remains silent during Claudio's violent confrontation of Hero. And ultimately, the investigation (conducted entirely off-stage) of Leonato largely exonerates her: “Margaret was in some fault for this, / Although against her will” (V. iv. 4-5).

The male conspirators likewise yield their potential character consistency to the demands of the plot. Borachio offers sufficiently diverse characteristics to defy a coherent psychological interpretation. He clearly knows the likely effects of his scheme: “to misuse the Prince, to vex Claudio, to undo Hero, and kill Leonato” (II. ii. 28-29). Yet Borachio not only instantly surrenders to the incompetent watch but also readily confesses his villainy to Don Pedro (V. i. 230-44). Moreover, the relationship itself of Borachio and Margaret stems from plot necessity rather than from any subtle characterization. Whereas the uncle which Claudio has in Messina gives a possible dimension to the youth's interest in Hero, the general membership of Borachio in the entourage of Don John of Arragon gives this schemer no such depth. In addition, Don John puts a seal on the ineptitude of villainy in this play. Even if Borachio had not confessed, the bastard's unexplained sudden flight would at the very least cause suspicion of his role in the defamation of Hero. Reflecting the fundamental lack of passionate intensity throughout this play, even Don John will face no real sanctions. Shakespeare's putting his ultimate disposition in the hands of the humorous Benedick instead of the more aggrieved Claudio suggests a light penance for this scapegoat. “As the pipers strike up and the dance begins, we realize that it is appropriate that Benedick, rather than the Prince or Leonato or Claudio, advise us that we ‘think not on him till tomorrow’.”24

The deliberate shallowness of Shakespeare's depiction of Hero and Claudio facilitates their bland adaptability to the demands of the plot. The playwright matches the youth of Claudio (I. i. 12-15) to that of Hero (I. iii. 56); the Count's awkwardness and essential passivity as a lover and Hero's complete apathy concerning the choice of a spouse reduce the appearance of individual autonomy. Claudio in particular appears “in a series of cameos. … We are to penetrate successive frames of mind as significant points in a passionate history and make the necessary imaginative leaps for ourselves to link them together.”25 Only in the renunciation scene at the church does this type of the courtly lover assume “an inner life.”26 The totality with which he gives himself away to Hero (II. i. 308-09) deprives Claudio of any subsequent response to love and beauty in the future when he thinks she is unfaithful (IV. i. 105-08).

However repulsive his public shaming of Hero appears, Claudio's error proceeds from ignorance and mistaking (V. i. 275), and he preserves some measure of our sympathy in the intense grief which accompanies his denunciation of Hero (IV. i. 100-108). Claudio's penance may seem light, but comedy does not require the more severe logic of tragedy, particularly not when the comedy is concerned to show the failure of suspicion and success of trust.”27 At Hero's vindication, Claudio again gives up his autonomy in accepting blindly any revenge proposed by Leonato.

Unreconstructed aggressiveness has been exorcised in the church scene and the ritual expiation makes possible a second chance.”28 Hero's symbolic death, sanctioned by the holy friar, gives both of them a new identity: “when I liv'd, I was your other wife, / And then you lov'd, you were my other husband” (V. iv. 60-61). As Leonato says, she died only while her slander lived. Repentance having created a new character for Claudio, a spirit of forgiveness can now free him and other characters from the consequences of their action. The revenge of Leonato towards Claudio dies with his marriage to the supposed cousin of Hero (V. i. 292).

In addition, the successful resolution of the long-term conflict in the subplot mitigates the intensity of the brief acrimony of the lovers in the main action. The verbal pyrotechnics set off between Beatrice and Benedick provide a brilliant descant to the main action. “Shakespeare's definitive treatment of the amorous agon occurs in Much Ado About Nothing; there is probably no other amorous agon in world literature that can match it in profundity, tenderness, wit, and sheer joyfulness.”29 The reconciliation of these lovers has already begun by the time of the conflict between Claudio and Hero. Given the pretext of the staged overhearings, Benedick and Beatrice swiftly testify to the strength of their underlying bonding by the speed of their recognition of their true feelings. Granted the autonomy of conscious recognition of their hidden feelings, they voluntarily decide to change their behavior. Benedick will be “horribly in love with her” (II. iii. 235) while Beatrice will tame her “wild heart” to his “loving hand” (III. i. 112).

Shakespeare stresses the durability of this transformation. Their new-found resolutions withstand the test of some friendly social ridicule as Claudio and Don Pedro mock Benedick for shaving and perfuming himself (III. ii. 44-51) while Hero and Margaret tease Beatrice for having “turn'd Turk” (III. iv. 57). And, indeed, separated by the assertiveness of Beatrice from his male friends, “Benedick never returns to the old male camaraderie.”30 Moreover, Shakespeare provides his typical reassurance to the audience concerning the stability of this newly re-established relationship by extending the time between initial declaration and final resolution, for Benedick must prove himself to Beatrice by confronting Claudio. Shakespeare completes his approval of their alliance by allowing them a return at the end to healthy teasing (V. iv. 91-97), a distancing that the playwright consistently deems necessary to a successful marital relationship.

In short, the critic may retain an indignation at the actions of Claudio and Don Pedro, of course, but such a reader carries a grudge longer than the concerned figures in the play do.31 Holding that Don Pedro and Claudio have “the very bent of honor” (IV. i. 186), these characters blame only Don John. Despite psychological probability, few signs of anger remain at the end of the play. Hero eagerly accepts her role of the wife of Claudio, and Claudio shows no resentment towards Benedick or Leonato for their challenges to him. Even though “the ambivalence in the insistence on women's chastity right along with the appreciation of her sexual responsiveness remains at the end of the play,”32 the marriages will alleviate at least momentarily the real melancholy and the isolation which appeared at the beginning of the play. The suffering of both sets of the lovers during the course of the play prevents the overly facile romantic relationships that Shakespeare deems dangerous to married love, and the inherent comic discontinuity of episodes and characters allows the dramatic figures a fresh, uncomplicated start.


  1. Jean E. Howard, “Renaissance Antitheatricality and the Politics of Gender and Rank in Much Ado About Nothing,Shakespeare Reproduced: The Text in History and Ideology, ed. Jean E. Howard (New York: Methuen, 1987), p. 176.

  2. Reflecting Shakespeare's pervasive admiration of twins, Portia in The Merchant of Venice reasons that friends who spend a great deal of time together begin to resemble each other: “There must be needs a like proportion / Of lineaments, of manners, and of spirit” (III. iv. 14-15).

  3. Love and Society in Shakespearean Comedy: A Study of Dramatic Form and Content (Newark: Univ. of Delaware Press, 1985).

  4. III. i. 9-11. All quotations are from The Riverside Shakespeare, ed. G. Blakemore Evans (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1974).

  5. Beatrice recognizes how inappropriate such a proposal is. She would not marry him “unless I might have another for working-days. Your Grace is too costly to wear every day” (II. i. 327-29).

  6. Joseph Westlund, Shakespeare's Reparative Comedies: A Psychoanalytic View of the Middle Plays (Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1984), p. 39. See also Jonas A. Barish, “Pattern and Purpose in the Prose of Much Ado About Nothing,Rice University Studies, 60 (1974), p. 24 and Carol Cook, “‘The Sign and Semblance of Her Honor’: Reading Gender Difference in Much Ado About Nothing,PMLA, 101 (1986), p. 193.

  7. Joyce H. Sexton, “The Theme of Slander in Much Ado About Nothing and Garter's Susanna,Philological Quarterly, 54 (1975), p. 420.

  8. See Harry Berger, Jr, “Against the Sink-a-Pace: Sexual and Family Politics in Much Ado About Nothing,Shakespeare Quarterly, 33 (1982), p. 304.

  9. Barbara Everett, “Much Ado About Nothing,Critical Quarterly, 3 (1961), p. 320.

  10. Antony B. Dawson, “Much Ado About Signifying,” Studies in English Literature, 22 (1982), p. 213.

  11. Dorothy C. Hockey, “Notes Notes, Forsooth …,” Shakespeare Quarterly, 8 (1957), p. 354.

  12. Delora G. Cunningham, “Wonder and Love in the Romantic Comedies,” Shakespeare Quarterly, 35 (1984), p. 263.

  13. Mary C. Williams, “Much Ado about Chastity in Much Ado About Nothing,Renaissance Papers (1984), p. 43.

  14. Carol T. Neely, Broken Nuptials in Shakespeare's Plays (New Haven: Yale Univ. Press, 1985), pp. 40-41.

  15. John Traugott, “Creating a Rational Rinaldo: A Study in the Mixture of the Genres of Comedy and Romance in Much Ado About Nothing,Genre, 15 (1982), p. 60.

  16. Paul and Miriam Mueschke, “Illusion and Metamorphosis in Much Ado About Nothing,Shakespeare Quarterly, 18 (1967), p. 61.

  17. Mark Taylor, “Presence and Absence in Much Ado About Nothing,The Centennial Review, 33 (1989), p. 6.

  18. John K. Hale, “‘We'll Strive to Please You Every Day’: Pleasure and Meaning in Shakespeare's Mature Comedies,” Studies in English Literature, 21 (1981), p. 244.

  19. Much Ado About Nothing, ed. F. H. Mares (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1988), p. 148.

  20. Stanley Wells, “Editorial Treatment of Foul-paper Texts: Much Ado About Nothing as a Test Case,” RES [Review of English Studies], 31 (1980), pp. 3-4.

  21. Harold Jenkins, “The Ball Scene in Much Ado About Nothing” in Shakespeare: Text, Language, Criticism: Essays in Honor of Marvin Spevack, ed. Bernhard Fabian (Hildescheim: Georg Olms: 1987), p. 100.

  22. “Love and Responsibility in The Merchant of Venice,Greyfriar: Siena Studies in Literature, 29 (1988), p. 15.

  23. Leah Scragg, “The Shakespearean ‘Antonio’,” ELN [English Language Notes], 23 (1985), pp. 14-15.

  24. Philip Traci, “‘Come, 'tis no matter. / Do not you meddle’: Too Much Ado in Shakespeare's Comedy,” The Upstart Crow, 4 (1982), p. 111.

  25. David Cook, “‘The Very Temple of Delight’: The Twin Plots of Much Ado About Nothing” in Poetry and Drama, 1570-1700: Essays in Honour of Harold F. Brooks, ed. Antony Coleman (London: Methuen, 1981), p. 34.

  26. Karen Newman, Shakespeare's Rhetoric of Comic Character: Dramatic Convention in Classical and Renaissance Comedy (London: Methuen, 1985), p. 110.

  27. Richard Henze, “Deception in Much Ado About Nothing,Studies in English Literature, 11 (1971), pp. 200-01.

  28. Ruth Nevo, Comic Transformations in Shakespeare (London: Methuen, 1980), p. 166.

  29. Frank J. Warnke, “Amorous Agon, Erotic Flyting: Some Play Motifs in the Literature of Love” in Auctor Ludens: Essays on Play in Literature, ed. Gerald Guinness (Philadelphia: John Benjamins, 1986), p. 106.

  30. Marilyn L. Williamson, The Patriarchy of Shakespeare's Comedies (Detroit: Wayne State Univ. Press, 1986), p. 48.

  31. Francis G. Schoff, “Claudio, Bertram, and a Note on Interpretation,” Shakespeare Quarterly, 10 (1959), p. 15.

  32. Williams, p. 44.

Freddi Lipstein (review date spring-summer 2003)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

SOURCE: Lipstein, Freddi. Review of Much Ado about Nothing. Shakespeare Bulletin 21, no. 2 (spring-summer 2003): 27-8.

[In the following review of the 2002/2003 staging of Much Ado about Nothing at the Shakespeare Theatre in Washington, D.C., Lipstein observes director Mark Lamos's reliance on low comedy to carry the play.]

In the Shakespeare Theatre's production of Much Ado About Nothing, director Mark Lamos has consciously chosen to emphasize the lighter side of the play, an approach that results in irreconcilable internal inconsistencies. Set in the 1920s, the play opens with Leonato and other characters sitting in a lush green garden, their heads turning from side to side following the sound of a tennis ball making contact with a racquet—perhaps a prelude to the back and forth wit of Beatrice and Benedick. The set is a carefully manicured lawn, reached by white marble stairways on either side and arched ivy-covered doorways in the back. Above is a walkway with a low marble balustrade. The movable trees and bushes are all neatly shaped pyramids.

As the messenger arrives to announce Don Pedro's return from the war, Beatrice and Hero enter from opposite sides of the lawn in chase of the tennis ball that has been “mishit.” The sunglasses and straw hats, lightweight suits, and Hero's and Beatrice's 1920s vintage white tennis frocks signal that it is summer. Later, at Leonato's feast, women wear colorful flapper-style dresses, and the masks at the ball are reminiscent of Mardi Gras.

From their first encounter, it is clear that this Benedick is no match for this Beatrice. Karen Ziemba is an intelligent and perky Beatrice, whose wit is not acerbic but good-natured. Benedick is not her intellectual equal. To compensate, Lamos has Benedick play to the audience, always taking us into his confidence, sharing his thoughts, and revealing a certain vulnerability. He is not a tough soldier hardened against women but, rather, a “professed tyrant” out of insecurity. He is easily gulled once he is “confident” that Beatrice actually loves him.

The gulling scenes are played as low comedy. Benedick sends his boy to fetch a book. The boy returns with a book as Benedick, by now hiding behind a bush, shoos him away as if Claudio, Leonato, and Don Pedro had not already seen him. Don Pedro, Leonato, and Claudio play the gulling over the top. Leonato, responding to the suggestion that Beatrice counterfeits affection for Benedick, over-emotes “Oh God! Counterfeit?” When Don Pedro asks “What effects of passion shows she?”, Leonato is suddenly at a loss, and he looks to the others for help before he lamely comes up with “She will sit you—you heard my daughter tell you how” (2.3.107-11). They are so involved in weaving their deception that they fail to notice that Benedick has moved his hiding place. As they look around, Benedick's boy re-enters with a stack of books and leads them to where Benedick is now hiding.

When they exit, Benedick takes a few seconds to let the message sink in and then almost shrieks “Whoa!” and shakes himself. He then comes forward and takes the audience into his confidence as he rationalizes his instant attitude adjustment. When Beatrice comes to bid him come in to dinner, he strikes a pose to thank her but is thrown off guard by her response before he recovers and tries to interpret her “double meaning.”

Beatrice's gulling takes place among sheets hanging on the clothesline. Hero and Ursula weave among the sheets, and Beatrice “hides” in front of a sheet when they are behind, then ducks behind the sheet as they emerge. When they sense that she is hooked, they begin taking the sheets off the line. Beatrice moves among the sheets as they come down until she is standing in front of the last one. She runs behind a bush as they unpin the sheet. Her contemplation of the revelation of Benedick's affection is much cooler than Benedick's, but there is still the same sense that Hero and Ursula have played on her vulnerability. She is no less insecure than Benedick, but she has a harder time letting go of her defensive quick wit.

Don John's deception, although it results in the devastation of Hero, does not seem to be motivated by a deep hatred of his brother or of Claudio but, rather, by boredom and delight in making mischief for the sake of making mischief. The Dogberry-Verges scenes, with the potential for tedium, were well paced. Dogberry was a good-natured officer, the three characters of the “watch” appearing almost American Gothic with the tools of their trades.

The downside of Lamos' choice to emphasize the lighter aspects of the play is that Benedick must fight to regain his character in the second part of the play. When Benedick approaches the weeping Beatrice and protests his love for her, the text suggests tension, even potential shock, when she tests his love by asking him to “Kill Claudio,” but this line invariably resulted in laughter, halting the movement toward a deeper relationship between Beatrice and Benedick and lightening the seriousness of the shame and hurt to Hero.

The Friar emerges as the strong character in the rejection scene. He takes charge of his “lost” flock, advises them, and almost succeeds in reaching to the darker or deeper aspects of the play, but his small part, standing alone, cannot bridge the gap the director has chosen to create.

The production ends on a characteristically light note, with lively dancing, including a Charleston.

Russell Jackson (review date summer 2003)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

SOURCE: Jackson, Russell. Review of Much Ado about Nothing. Shakespeare Quarterly 54, no. 2 (summer 2003): 167-95.

[In the following excerpted review of the 2002/2003 Royal Shakespeare Company season at Stratford-upon-Avon, Jackson summarizes the major dramatic movements and principal character interpretations that made up Gregory Doran's generally well-received staging of Much Ado about Nothing.]

The first two plays in the Stratford season were cross-cast in the supporting roles but did not share the same principals: Harriet Walter (Beatrice) and Nicholas Le Prevost (Benedick) appeared only in Much Ado About Nothing, and Stuart Wilson and Sinead Cusack played only Antony and Cleopatra. Of the two productions, Doran's Much Ado was the more successful, A permanent (and very solid-looking) set showed the exterior of Leonato's villa stretching diagonally across and up the stage from the left-hand corner. The large porch, with a balcony reached by a flight of steps, dominated the center of the stage, while the downstage playing area represented the garden or a street, and the lighting on the warm sandstone evoked heat and Italian sunshine. For the garden scenes a trellis of greenery could be run across the stage in front of the house, and the chapel was represented by introducing an altar on the extreme left, a statue of the Virgin by the door, and rows of chairs to suggest the nave: the porch of the house now did duty as the entrance to the sacristy. Unlike [Kenneth] Branagh, Doran and his designer, Stephen Brimson Lewis, chose an urban rather than pastoral setting and indicated a specific time period as well. This was Sicily in the 1930s: Don John (Stephen Campbell-Moore) and Conrade (Ian Drysdale) wore the black shirts of fascisti, who might have been returning from the invasion of Abyssinia. I write “might have been” because there can be no exact parallel between the romantic military campaign in which Claudio has acquitted himself well and few have been lost with Mussolini's far-from-creditable imperial adventure.

However, so long as no one mentioned the war, the shift in period served the play well enough. At the opening of the play, townspeople were wandering about. Children played morra (an Italian version of scissors-cut-paper), and two elderly men (one Antonio, the other Verges) sat on the bench in front of the villa. A table downstage at the right indicated a cafe, and large marionettes hanging over the back of one of the chairs gave a hint of the Sicilian puppetry that the masked ball later took up. Borachio (John Killoran) slouched on, self-consciously aggressive in a leather jacket worn over an undershirt. When the dispatch rider arrived with news from the front, Harriet Walter, in trousers that brought Katharine Hepburn to mind, mounted his motorbike and started it. The freedom she claimed and the general alarm it caused were firmly indicated in this action. The other women wore simple cotton dresses in floral prints. Beatrice insisted on being different. When Don Pedro (Clive Wood) and his party arrived, for the most part nattily uniformed, Benedick—another tolerated and admired eccentric—soon relaxed into an amiable, comfortable slouch. His principal item of luggage was a carpetbag, from which he produced a bottle of spirits. (This was a private supply of alcohol, carefully returned to the bag after he had drawn on it.) Don Pedro was nervously enthusiastic, well turned-out, and slightly camp. Benedick had a few days' growth of beard, and there was no spring in his step. He and Beatrice eyed each other across the stage before she initiated their first exchange of wit. When he turned his back on her as a way of having the last word, she seemed genuinely hurt. The dialogue between Benedick and Claudio (John Hopkins) had an edge, as though the seasoned campaigner felt himself challenged by the younger man's callow enthusiasm.

There was a palpable psychotic element in Don John's villainy: tortured by the prospect of Claudio's happiness, he curled up in a fetal position centerstage and was brought out of his anguish by the prospect of a plot. In the masquerade the men wore costumes and masks that suggested the stock figure of the soldier-hero in Sicilian puppetry. Benedick's mask and crested helmet were more outrageous than the rest, but the credibility of the “serious” mistaking by Claudio was maintained. The gulling scene began with a new variation on the business with the boy whom he sends for a book, who this time not only reappeared at an inopportune moment but insisted on a tip. Le Provost's delivery of Benedick's soliloquies was consistent with his performance throughout, being conversational and candid rather than self-conscious and showy. Beatrice (who appeared at the top of the steps with a dinner gong to summon him to dinner) delivered her verse soliloquy at the end of the scene with similar gravitas and simplicity, but this was in contrast to the farcical actions that accompanied her eavesdropping on Hero (Kirsten Parker) and Ursula (Noma Dumezweni): first she ran lapwing-like close to the ground, then she took up a position behind the shrubbery, finally moving down to the right, where Hero and Ursula, armed with a stirrup-pump and water bucket, soaked her under the pretext of watering the honeysuckle. Dripping, Beatrice stood centerstage for her soliloquy.

Margaret (Sarah Ball) was treated with some subtlety and without any attempt to iron out the contradictions in the role. The second part of the performance began with Claudio downstage, covertly observing two silhouetted figures making vigorous love. On the morning of the wedding, while Beatrice was desperately trying to treat her cold by inhaling the fumes from a steaming basin, Margaret dominated the scene. Her body language throughout had suggested a less restrained sexuality than that of the other women: earlier she had sat with her legs apart, smoking. Now, wearing only a slinky silk slip, she taunted Beatrice's reticence. It was credible that she should have relished what she thought a harmless but piquant adventure in borrowing Hero's dress for an amorous encounter, and during the church scene, she left hurriedly and in evident distress at the news of Hero's death. Despite this, her demeanor with Benedick in a later scene did not suggest a very profound remorse.

Doran staged the unhappiest scenes of the play forcefully but without melodrama. Leonato's grief in the church was quietly effective. He sat apart from the central group and did no violence to Hero. After the friar's insistence on Hero's innocence and his proposal of a strategy to prove it, Benedick exited with the others. He then came back in search of his cap and found Beatrice in tears. He restrained her lovingly as she writhed in anger at the thought of Claudio's betrayal of Hero, and his response to “Kill Claudio” was one of involuntary astonishment that turned quickly into resolution. Benedick's challenge to Claudio came as the unpleasant aftermath to the confrontation between Leonato (Gary Waldhorn), Antonio (Trevor Martin), and the two younger men. Don Pedro's strained attempt to ease the tension with a joke, which petered out embarrassingly, was of a piece with his nervously forced good humor throughout the play and prepared the ground for his exclusion from the general mood of rejoicing at the end.

The personable and engaging Claudio was sincerely contrite when he heard the news of Hero's death and seemed disturbed in the scene at her tomb. All the same, he still had some way to go in the acquisition of tact. In the final scene he insisted, “I'd hold my mind [to marry Hero] were she an Ethiope,” as he carelessly handed his gloves to Ursula—who happened to be black. He did realize immediately that he had put his foot in it, with a “take” that did something to acknowledge his blunder. The high spirits of the ending were qualified by the behavior of Don Pedro: Don John was marched onstage under escort (Conrade seemed to have changed sides), and after the confrontation, Don Pedro, having acquired a bottle, walked up the stairs and disappeared into the house. Margaret, in an irrepressible return to her independence, danced with Conrade and Borachio, giving them both the glad eye but jilting the drunkard in favor of the turncoat. All the characters except Don Pedro participated in the final dance.

Martha Tuck Rozett (review date fall 2003)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

SOURCE: Rozett, Martha Tuck. Review of Much Ado about Nothing. Shakespeare Bulletin 21, no. 3 (fall 2003): 131-33.

[In the following review of director Daniela Varon's 2003 Shakespeare and Company staging of Much Ado about Nothing at the Founders' Theater in Lenox, Massachusetts, Rozett praises Varon's fine realization of the play's festive qualities and comic virtuosity.]

Seldom does a Shakespeare play with a modern setting manage to evoke a particular time and place as thoroughly as Shakespeare and Company's production of Much Ado about Nothing. Daniela Varon's Messina, inspired by popular images of Sicily in the 1950s, is steeped in the culture of violence and family loyalty associated with the Mafia. The oft-repeated word “honor” becomes a keynote in this production, for as Varon says in her director's notes, she is interested in “what it is to speak and to act honorably, what it really is to be a man of honor, what honor truly means to a woman in a society that equates her honor with her chastity and that makes sexual dishonor a fate worse than death.” But Varon's Sicily is also splendidly festive, its atmosphere conveyed less by the simple set than by the veritable anthology of popular instrumental and vocal music in English and Italian that starts before the play begins and continues during the intermission and straight through to the play's end. A big old-fashioned radio is the production's most important prop, and live music is performed by Balthasar, a Sinatra-like popular singer who croons “Stranger in the Night” (in both English and Italian) into a microphone to the delight of the young women in the masked-ball scene. The line “Speak low if you speak love” inspires the lyrics for another of Balthazar's songs, and there is much dancing, some of it quite comical.

The Mafia motif means that the men, who are much given to hugging and kissing on both cheeks, wear two- or three-piece suits, narrow ties, and slicked-back hair. Don Pedro and his company arrive in Messina sporting fedora hats and toting rifles, which reappear later in the play when Benedick challenges Claudio to a duel. Don John is distinguished from the rest by a tough-guy accent, a black-and-white striped shirt and white tie, and a cigarette. Antonio, often played as a doddering old man, in this production has the look of an aging prizefighter, now relegated to watering the flowers but ready to rise to the occasion and present a formidable challenge to the slightly-built Claudio in 5.1. Switchblade knives make frequent appearances: Borachio uses one to spear an olive in his martini while Leonato, in a highly charged moment, brandishes a knife at Hero in 4.1 during his long, self-absorbed speech about how his honor has been besmirched.

Hero, Beatrice, and Margaret, whose costumes change in nearly every scene, generally wear 1950s-era wide circular skirts and little bolero jackets in bright colors, and in the final scene their veils are attached to big Sunday hats (Ursula, in contrast, is an old Italian lady dressed in black). The costumes and hairdos suggest a time when, in Varon's words, “Italian women were on the one hand newly enfranchised, on the other still domestically oppressed (not unlike their American counterparts).” Paula Langton's Beatrice, with her short curly hair and forthright manner, is the most enfranchised of the three; while the other women are clustered together in the background, she is playing chess with Leonato when the soldier enters to announce Don Pedro's arrival. All Beatrices are witty and self-assured—how could they be otherwise?—but this one can be especially fearless. Her comic riff, delivered in a Marlon Brando-as-Godfather voice, on the devil who guards the gates of hell (2.1.42ff) is a hilarious spoof of the Sicilian men's posturing. Later in this scene she is a little teary-eyed when Hero and Claudio pledge themselves to one another, which may account for her lapse of discretion. When Don Pedro gets down on one knee and says seriously, “Will you have me, lady?” the atmosphere becomes tense, for Beatrice has risked insulting the honor of this formidable and powerful man. His line “Your silence most offends me, and to be merry best becomes you […]” sounds almost angry; thus the plot to play matchmakers comes across as a face-saving measure to break the tension of the moment.

As Benedick, Allyn Burrows is a splendid match for Langton's Beatrice. He uses the deep thrust stage (newly reconfigured for this season in Shakespeare and Company's Founders' Theater) to great effect, darting from one corner to another and making eye contact with various women in the audience in 2.3 to illustrate the catalogue of women (“One woman is fair, yet I am well […]”). His signature prop is a short, rush-seated stool that serves as the bull's horns in 1.1. To spy on Don Pedro, Claudio, and Leonato, he takes his stool and newspaper into the seating area, falls off the stool a couple of times, then climbs along the scaffolding that supports the upper level, all the while adlibbing to the audience and muttering to himself (“Contemptible? I'll show you contemptible!”). In his light-colored baggy clothing (the only point in the entire play when any of the men appear informally attired) Benedick looks boyish and vulnerable, and his delight as he dances off-stage with a potted plant at the end of 2.3 or washes his feet and shaves in the onstage fountain in 3.2 seems like a momentary respite from the honor-bound masculinity that Sicilian society demands.

Every director of Much Ado has to decide what to do about Margaret, the unwitting agent of Hero's disgrace. This production's saucy Margaret is frequently onstage, moving set furnishings, dancing to the radio music, filling in for the boy Benedick sends for a book in 2.3, and enjoying the gulling of Beatrice from the side balcony overlooking the stage. Her romance with the masterful Borachio is established during the masked ball in anticipation of a mostly silent nighttime scene that Varon adds between 3.2 and 3.3. Margaret and Hero appear in a window, and Hero takes off her sequined jacket and hands it to Margaret, who puts it on as Hero leaves. Margaret then lets down a rope ladder for Borachio, and we watch, with Claudio, Don John, and Don Pedro, as the couple embraces. When Borachio calls her “Hero,” Claudio lets out an anguished howl, and the scene ends. As in most productions of Much Ado, Margaret is present in the wedding scene. After Don Pedro describes what he saw (“Myself, my brother, and this grieved count / Did see her hear her, at that hour last night […]”), Margaret recognizes her complicity and rushes horror-stricken from the stage. There is much weeping among these emotional Italians (at various points in the evening Hero, Beatrice, Benedick, and Claudio are reduced to tears), so it is quite in character for Margaret to be weeping copiously at her next entrance in 5.2. But she soon cheers up and engages in witty banter with the verse-challenged Benedick, an about-turn that, if not entirely convincing, is in keeping with the play's emphasis on forgiveness and reconciliation.

This Much Ado has no shortage of comic business: Beatrice gets tangled up in a corset and clothes-pinned to the wash line as she hides from Hero and Ursula, and the Dogberry scenes are played to the hilt by a slapstick ensemble led by veteran Shakespeare and Company actor Jonathan Epstein. Epstein's Dogberry is dressed in full military regalia with a feathered Napoleon hat and an umbrella. He mops his brow continuously with numerous colored handkerchifs, as if exhausted by the effort to make himself understood. He and Verges enter speaking Italian, and only after the latter, gesturing to the audience, says “No capice Italiano,” do they switch to English, with occasional lapses. There is much comic horseplay involving cappuccino cups and the props carried by the three Watchmen, a baker, a fisherman, and a miner. I'll pass over without comment the frequent use of round trapdoors through which the actors pop up and down like gophers, echoing last summer's Henry V. Suffice to say that the comic scenes are a little longer and sillier than they need to be but that Epstein's Dogberry, like his Bottom a few seasons ago, is at once wonderfully dignified and utterly absurd. When Borachio confesses in 5.1, the audience senses that Dogberry still doesn't quite get it. The most important aspect of the incident, as far as he's concerned, is that Conrad called him an ass, and his air of injured dignity is both comic and sobering in a society where insult and slander are rife. Like so many of the play's characters, his honor has been grievously wounded, and his exit after passing the ceremonial hat and umbrella of office to one of the Watchmen is tinged with melancholy.

Much Ado is one of several Shakespearean comedies that end with music and dancing, and in this production the music and dancing have been so much a part of the action that it seems altogether natural for the accordions to crank out a lively two-step that becomes a delightfully witty series of curtain calls. There is a dark moment, of course, when the soldier arrives to say that Don John has been taken in flight and brought back to Messina. He presents Don Pedro with a package containing the black-and-white striped shirt and three dead fish, presumably a Mafioso sign that the bad guy is no more. Nevertheless, in the curtain-call dance Don John, a fish strung around his neck, steps nimbly with his fellow actors, and the evening ends on a decidedly festive note.

Further Reading

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share


Andresen-Thom, Martha. “Thinking about Women and Their Prosperous Art: A Reply to Juliet Dusinberre's Shakespeare and the Nature of Women.Shakespeare Studies 11 (1978): 259-76.

Presents Much Ado about Nothing's Beatrice as an example of the “female ego ideal” in Shakespearean drama.

Brooke, Stopford A. “Much Ado about Nothing.” In Ten More Plays of Shakespeare, pp. 1-30. London: Constable, 1913.

Offers a moral and impressionistic assessment of character in Much Ado about Nothing.

Cox, John F., ed. Introduction to Shakespeare in Production: Much Ado about Nothing, by William Shakespeare, pp. 1-85. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997.

Provides an introduction to Much Ado about Nothing that focuses on the performance history of the drama.

Crichton, Andrew B. “Hercules Shaven: A Centering Mythic Metaphor in Much Ado about Nothing.Texas Studies in Literature and Language 16, no. 5 (fall 1974): 619-26.

Examines Borachio's allusion to the shaven Hercules in Act III, scene iii of Much Ado about Nothing.

Draffan, Robert A. “About Much Ado.Essays in Criticism 20, no. 4 (October 1970): 488-92.

Reflects on the characterization of Hero and Claudio in Much Ado about Nothing.

Fleissner, Robert T. “Love's Labour's Won and the Occasion of Much Ado.Shakespeare Survey 27 (1974): 105-10.

Argues that Much Ado about Nothing is actually the subtitle of a drama originally called Love's Labour's Won.

Friedman, Michael D. “Male Bonds and Marriage in All's Well and Much Ado.Studies in English Literature 1500-1900 35, no. 2 (spring 1995): 231-49.

Probes the opposition between male social relations and the impetus toward marriage depicted in Much Ado about Nothing and All's Well That Ends Well, particularly emphasizing the ways in which this conflict is reflected in theatrical interpretations of Benedick and Bertram.

Hunter, G. K. “Much Ado about Nothing.” In Shakespeare: The Late Comedies, pp. 20-32. London: Longmans, Green & Co., 1962.

Describes Much Ado about Nothing as a tragicomedy concerned with the themes of deception and self-awareness.

Klein, Holger, ed. Introduction to Much Ado about Nothing: A New Critical Edition, pp. 11-35. Salzburg, Austria: Institut für Anglistik und Amerikanistik, 1992.

Summarizes the composition, sources, stage history, structure, characterization, and thematic framework of Much Ado about Nothing.

McCollom, William G. “The Role of Wit in Much Ado about Nothing.” In The Divine Average: A View of Comedy, pp. 139-52. Cleveland: The Press of Case Western Reserve University, 1971.

Analyzes assorted examples of verbal wit, wordplay, pun, and parody used in Much Ado about Nothing.

Pasicki, Adam. “Some Rhetorical Figures in Much Ado about Nothing.Kwartalnik Neofilologiczny 15, no. 2 (1968): 147-54.

Categorizes and studies the various rhetorical devices—including anaphora, antimetabol, and punning—found in the language of Much Ado about Nothing.

Taylor, Michael. “Much Ado about Nothing: The Individual in Society.” Essays in Criticism 23, no. 2 (April 1973): 146-53.

Explores the balance between individualism and social responsibility depicted in Much Ado about Nothing, with particular regard to the figures of Don John, Claudio, Beatrice, and Benedick.

Traugott, John. “Creating a Rational Rinaldo: Study in the Mixture of the Genres of Comedy and Romance in Much Ado about Nothing.Genre 15, nos. 1-2 (spring-summer 1982): 157-81.

Suggests that Shakespeare imaginatively altered his source material, including the writings of Ariosto, Spenser, and Sidney, to form his dramatic comedy Much Ado about Nothing.

See eNotes Ad-Free

Start your 48-hour free trial to get access to more than 30,000 additional guides and more than 350,000 Homework Help questions answered by our experts.

Get 48 Hours Free Access

Much Ado about Nothing (Vol. 78)


Much Ado About Nothing: The Unsociable Comedy