Much Ado About Nothing by William Shakespeare

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Historical Background

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

(Critical Guide to Settings and Places in Literature)

Leonato’s house

Leonato’s house. Home of Leonato, the governor of Messina on the island of Sicily, which during the thirteenth century in 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 entire section is 1,954 words.)