Much Ado About Nothing Much Ado about Nothing (Vol. 88)
by William Shakespeare

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(Shakespearean Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 64,873 words.)