Illustration of Hero wearing a mask

Much Ado About Nothing

by William Shakespeare

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Historical Background

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Last Updated on June 1, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 578

The Commedie of much A doo about nothing a booke was entered in the Stationer's Register, the official record book of the London Company of Stationers (booksellers and printers), on August 4, 1600 as a play of My lord chamberlens men (Shakespeare's acting company) and stayed (not published) without further permission, to prevent unauthorized publication of this very popular play. This quarto text, generally regarded as having been set from Shakespeare's own manuscript, was the copy used for the First Folio of 1623, which is lightly annotated, with minimal and mostly typographic emendation. Since Will Kempe, the great comic actor who played Dogberry, left the Chamberlain's Men in 1599, it is generally agreed that Shakespeare completed this play no later than 1598-1599. Although scholars have attempted to trace the play's roots to Ariosto's tragedy, Orlando Furioso, to Bandello's twenty-second story from the Novelle, or to Spenser's poetic work, The Fairie Queen, in truth, no play ever existed quite like this one, with its interwoven plots, the wit and verve of Benedick and Beatrice, and the highly inventive comic element of Dogberry and his watch, which gives the Claudio-Hero plot most of its vitality. Much Ado About Nothing is a subtler version of Taming of the Shrew, transposed from farce to high comedy, and it is the scaffolding upon which Othello is built.

Well known and often presented to packed houses before its publication, Much Ado About Nothing has not lacked the interest of either producers or reviewers over the last four centuries-it has been popular onstage throughout virtually all of its history. It was performed at court in 1613 for Princess Elizabeth and Frederick, Elector Palantine. David Garrick gave Much Ado About Nothing its first performance at Drury Lane on November 14, 1748, playing Benedick brilliantly, and regularly offered it until his farewell performance from the stage in May 9, 1776. Notable presentations in the nineteenth century, when productions tended toward lavish spectacle, include Miss Helen Faucit's personation of Beatrice, noted in the Manchester Courier of May 9, 1846 as "a performance of rare beauty" and Henry Irving's "exquisite performance" of Benedick at the Lyceum Theater, noted as having been "given with infinite grace" in the Saturday Review of October 21, 1882. Twentieth century renditions have frequently changed the time and locale of the play, with productions as diverse as the American Southwest shoot-em up era, the bicycle-riding Edwardian era and the Teddy Roosevelt era of gramophones and keystone cops. The success of these productions show that the original text is universal enough in appeal and balanced in its composition to withstand these chameleon-like experiments without losing any of its sense.

A. C. Swinburne describes this play as Shakespeare's "most perfect comic masterpiece," and states that "[f]or absolute power of composition, for faultless balance and blameless rectitude of design, there is unquestionably no creation of his hand that will bear comparison with Much AdoAbout Nothing." George Bernard Shaw on the other hand, while stating that the success of this play "depends on the way it is handled in performance," salutes the Bard as a "great musician" and declares the play "irresistible as poetry" but questions Shakespeare's mastery of "gallant badinage" and dismisses Benedick's wit as "coarse sallies" and Beatrice's wit as "indelicacy," all of which is perhaps more a reflection of the taste of his Victorian time than a true assessment of the play. In the end, the merit of this play rests with its proven ability to continue to touch the hearts and cheer the souls of its audience.

Places Discussed

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 152

Leonato’s house

Leonato’s house. Home of Leonato, the governor of Messina on the island of Sicily, which during the thirteenth century in...

(This entire section contains 152 words.)

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which the play is set was an important European cultural center. The governor would have had rooms enough in his house lavishly to entertain and host nobles from the artistic and intellectual Italian cities of Florence and Padua, as well as the one of the most powerful independent kingdoms in medieval Spain, Aragon. Although most of the governor’s guests are Italians, they are regarded as foreigners in Messina, and as such, are easily duped.

The grounds around the house contain an elaborate orchard described in act 1, scene 2, as having a “thick-pleached alley” or an arched walkway lined with trees whose boughs are interwoven. The thickness of the boughs would hide anyone who wanted to overhear a conversation; in this way, Shakespeare could present secrecy and comedic intrigue.

Modern Connections

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 687

Three major aspects of Much Ado About Nothing can be related to contemporary life. The first is the idea of the innocent being wrongfully accused. Hero is accused of not being a virgin. False and very slight evidence is offered on the night before her wedding. The evidence is taken at face value and believed by a range of significant people in her life, including her fiancé, his influential friend, and her own father. These three individuals immediately believe the worst about Hero. They scarcely question what little evidence is offered. In fact, it is almost a case of one person's reputation and social standing weighed against another's. In addition to the swiftness and injustice of the reaction to Claudio's accusation, the reaction is also severe. Claudio and the prince publicly shame Hero on her wedding day at the ceremony itself. Hero's father utters a wish for her death. Modern audiences may recoil at the shaming scene and many find it almost baffling. For an Elizabethan woman, her value to society, to her family and to herself lay in her marriageability. This in turn was dependent on her physical and moral purity. Also, arranged marriages, or at least marriages where a go-between would play a role, were common. The go-between would be concerned about his own honor and public reputation in this dealing as in all his dealings. In spite of changed social attitudes on these particular points, many people experience the feeling of being accused of some deed they did not do or at least some comment they did not make. Hero is utterly unable to defend herself. Her word is not given any credit. Modern audiences of young people may feel that parents and other adults are sometimes to ready to think the worst on slight evidence, rather than pausing to investigate. A related aspect to this feeling of the unjust accusation is the need for solid evidence. The play contains various points where characters suggest something that they use as a basis for truth. For example, Benedick is fooled by the conversation about Beatrice's love for him because an older, respected gentleman is in on the trick. Beatrice is able to convince Benedick to challenge Claudio to a duel because she says she is certain that her cousin Hero has been wronged. She is sure as she has "a thought or a soul" (IV.i.330). Her certitude is enough for Benedick.

The romance in the play also serves as a connection between the play and the contemporary audience. Throughout the play, friends serve as "go-betweens" or in some way help potential lovers come together. Don Pedro helps Claudio woo Hero, and, similarly, Don Pedro, Leonato, Claudio, Hero, Margaret, and Ursula all help Beatrice and Benedick get together. Although the tricking ("gulling") is an Elizabethan stage convention, there is still room today for friends to play an agreed upon role to find out someone's attitude to a potential romantic partner and also to generally stir up an interest.

Another aspect of romance—the time frame in which romance develops in Shakespeare's plays— also interests modern audiences. The action of this play is one week and a day. Claudio and Hero's engagement comes early in this time frame. The very compression of their romance and its being in its first rosy bloom seem to intensify the anguish and shock of the shaming scene.

The third point of interest is the unexplained maliciousness of Don John. He fits the part of the Elizabethan comic villain. His actions seem less than comic, but the fact that he appears in a comedy will mean that ultimately his cruel and hurtful actions will be rendered ineffectual. One possible motive for his behavior is the psychological effect of the stigma attached to his illegitimacy. Laws and social attitudes made illegitimacy more problematic and shunned in Shakespeare's time than it is now. Illegitimate male offspring were publicly branded by distinguishing marks on the shields they used in battle and displayed in their homes. Also, illegitimate children were usually prevented from inheriting their families wealth, with common law favoring the oldest legitimate son.


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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 259

Bloom, Harold, ed. William Shakespeare’s “Much Ado About Nothing.” New York: Chelsea House, 1988. Contains eight significant articles from the 1970’s and 1980’s. See especially the essays by Richard A. Levin, who looks beneath the comedic surface to find unexpected, troubling currents, and Carol Thomas Neely, who contributes an influential feminist interpretation.

Evans, Bertrand. Shakespeare’s Comedies. Oxford, England: Clarendon Press, 1960. Important critical study. Concludes that Shakespeare’s comic dramaturgy is based on different levels of awareness among characters and between them and the audience. The comedy in Much Ado About Nothing reflects an intricate game of multiple deceptions and misunderstandings that the audience enjoys from a privileged position.

Hunter, Robert Grams. Shakespeare and the Comedy of Forgiveness. New York: Columbia University Press, 1965. Argues persuasively that the thematic core of several Shakespeare comedies derives from the tradition of English morality plays. In Much Ado About Nothing, Claudio sins against the moral order by mistrusting Hero and is saved by repentance and forgiveness.

Macdonald, Ronald R. William Shakespeare: The Comedies. New York: Twayne, 1992. Compact introduction to Shakespeare’s comedy that is both critically sophisticated and accessible to the general reader. Essay on Much Ado About Nothing reveals various subtextual relationships of class and gender by probing the characters’ semantically complex and ironic verbal behavior.

Ornstein, Robert. Shakespeare’s Comedies: From Roman Farce to Romantic Mystery. London: Associated University Presses, 1986. Award-winning book by a major Shakespeare scholar. The chapter on Much Ado About Nothing offers a sensitive, graceful analysis of the play that focuses primarily on characterization, plot, and moral themes.

Bibliography and Further Reading

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 278

Quotations from Much Ado About Nothing are taken from the following translation.

Bevington, David, ed. Much Ado About Nothing. New York: Bantam Books, 1988. Foreword written by Joseph Papp.

Other Sources

Barish, Jonas A. Pattern and Purpose in the Prose of Much Ado About Nothing. Rice University Studies, 60:2, 1974, pp. 19-30.

Berry Ralph. Much Ado About Nothing: Structure & Texture. English Studies 52, 1971, pp. 211-223.

Fillmore, Charles. Metaphysical Bible Dictionary, Missouri: Unity, 1931.

Furness, Horace Howard, ed. Much Ado About: Nothing, A New Variorum Edition of Shakespeare. New York: Dover Publications, Inc., 1964.

Gaskell, G.A. Dictionary of all Scriptures and Myths. New York: Julian Press, Inc., 1973.

Hockey, Dorothy C. Notes Notes, Forsooth .... Shakespeare Quarterly 8, 1957, pp. 353-358. Delineates the pattern of misnoting or false noting as the thematic device of the play.

Holy Bible, Philadelphia: National Bible Press, conformable to the edition of 1611 commonly known as the King James Version.

Owen, Charles A., Jr. Comic Awareness, Style, and Dramatic Technique in Much Ado About Nothing. Boston University Studies in English, Vol. 5, No. 4, Winter 1961, pp. 193-207.

Quiller-Couch, Sir Arthur and John Dover Wilson, ed. Much Ado About Nothing, The Works of Shakespeare. London: Cambridge University Press, 1969.

Shaw, George Bernard. Our Theatres in the Nineties. 3 vols. London: Constable & Co., Ltd., 1932.

Skeat, Rev. Walter W. A Concise Etymological Dictionary of the English Language. New York: Capricorn Books, 1963.

Stauffer, Donald A. Shakespeare's World of Images. New York: W.W. Norton and Company, Inc., 1949.

Stevenson, David L., ed. Much Ado About Nothing. New York: Signet, 1964.

Swinburne, Algernon Charles. A Study of Shakespeare. London 1880.

Wey, James J. "To Grace Harmony": Musical Design in Much Ado About Nothing. Boston University Studies in English, Vol. IV, No. 3, Autumn 1960, pp. 181-188.




Critical Essays