The play is one of the few in the Shakespeare canon where the majority of the text is written in prose. The substantial verse sections, nevertheless, are used to achieve both courteous decorum, on the one hand, and impulsive energies, on the other.
Much Ado About Nothing is set in Messina, a port on the island of Sicily, which is next to the toe of Italy. Sicily was ruled by Aragon at the time the play was set. The action of the play takes place mainly at the home and on the grounds of Leonato's Estate.
Themes and motifs
Benedick and Beatrice quickly became the main interest of the play, to the point where they are today considered the leading roles, even though their relationship is given equal or lesser weight in the script than Claudio and Hero's situation. Charles II even wrote 'Benedick and Beatrice' beside the title of the play in his copy of the Second Folio. The provocative treatment of gender is central to the play and should be considered in its Renaissance context. While this was reflected and emphasised in certain plays of the period, it was also challenged. Amussen notes that the destabilising of traditional gender clichés appears to have inflamed anxieties about the erosion of social order. It seems that comic drama could be a means of calming such anxieties. Ironically, we can see through the play's popularity that this only increased people's interest in such behaviour. Benedick wittily gives voice to male anxieties about women's "sharp tongues and proneness to sexual lightness". In the patriarchal society of the play, the men's loyalties were governed by conventional codes of honour and camaraderie and a sense of superiority to women. Assumptions that women are by nature prone to inconstancy are shown in the repeated jokes on cuckoldry and partly explain Claudio's readiness to believe the slur against Hero. This stereotype is turned on its head in Balthasar's song, which shows men to be the deceitful and inconstant sex that women must suffer.
A theme in Shakespeare is cuckoldry or the infidelity of a wife. Several of the characters seem to be obsessed by the idea that a man has no way to know if his wife is faithful and therefore women can take full advantage of that fact. Don John plays upon Claudio's pride and fear of cuckoldry, which leads to the disastrous first wedding scene. Many of the males easily believe that Hero is impure and even her father readily condemns her with very little proof. This motif runs through the play, often in references to horns, a symbol of cuckoldry.
In contrast, Balthasar's song "Sigh No More" tells women to accept men's infidelity and continue to live joyfully. Some interpretations say that Balthasar sings poorly, undercutting the message. This is supported by Benedick's cynical comments about the song, where he compares it to a howling dog. However, in the 1993 Branagh film Balthasar sings beautifully, the song is also given a prominent role in both the opening and finale, and the message appears to be embraced by the women in the film.
In Much Ado About Nothing, there are many examples of deception and self-deception. The games and tricks played on people often have the best intentions—to make people fall in love, to help someone get what they want, or to make someone realise their mistake. However, not all are meant well, such as when Don John convinces Claudio that Don Pedro wants Hero for himself, or when Borachio meets 'Hero' (who is actually Margaret, pretending to be Hero) in Hero's bedroom window.
Masks and mistaken identity
People are constantly pretending to be others or being mistaken for other people. An example of this is Margaret who is mistaken for Hero, which leads to Hero's public disgrace at her wedding with Claudio. However, during a masked ball in which everyone must wear a mask, Beatrice rants about Benedick to a masked man who turns out to be Benedick himself but Beatrice is unaware of this at the time. During the same celebration, Don Pedro, masked, pretends to be Claudio and courts Hero for him. After Hero is announced "dead," Leonato orders Claudio to marry his "niece," who is actually Hero in disguise.
Another motif is the play on the words nothing and noting, which in Shakespeare's day were homophones. Taken literally, the title implies that a great fuss ("much ado") is made of something which is insignificant ("nothing"), such as the unfounded claims of Hero's infidelity and the unfounded claims that Benedick and Beatrice are in love with one another. The title could also be understood as Much Ado About Noting. Much of the action is in interest in and critique of others, written messages, spying, and eavesdropping. This is mentioned several times, particularly concerning "seeming," "fashion," and outward impressions. Nothing is a double entendre, "an O-thing" (or "n othing" or "no thing") was Elizabethan slang for "vagina", evidently derived from the pun of a woman having "nothing" between her legs.
Examples of noting as noticing occur in the following instances: (1.1.131–132)
Claudio: Benedick, didst thou note the daughter of Signor Leonato?
Benedick: I noted her not, but I looked on her.
Friar: Hear me a little,
For I have only been silent so long And given way unto this course of fortune By noting of the lady.
At (3.3.102–104), Borachio indicates that a man's clothing doesn't indicate his character:
Borachio: Thou knowest that the fashion of a doublet, or a hat, or a cloak is nothing to a man.
A triple play on words in which noting signifies noticing, musical notes and nothing occurs at (2.3.47–52):
Don Pedro: Nay pray thee, come;
Or if thou wilt hold longer argument, Do it in notes. Balthasar: Note this before my notes: There's not a note of mine that's worth the noting. Don Pedro: Why, these are very crotchets that he speaks – Note notes, forsooth, and nothing!
Don Pedro's last line can be understood to mean, "Pay attention to your music and nothing else!" The complex layers of meaning include a pun on "crotchets," which can mean both "quarter notes" (in music) and whimsical notions.
The following are puns on notes as messages: (2.1.174–176),
Claudio: I pray you leave me.
Benedick: Ho, now you strike like the blind man – 'twas the boy that stole your meat, and you'll beat the post.
in which Benedick plays on the word post as a pole and as mail delivery in a joke reminiscent of Shakespeare's earlier advice "Don't shoot the messenger"; and (2.3.138–142)
Claudio: Now you talk of a sheet of paper, I remember a pretty jest your daughter told us of.
Leonato: O, when she had writ it and was reading it over, she found Benedick and Beatrice between the sheet?
in which Leonato makes a sexual innuendo concerning sheet as a sheet of paper (on which Beatrice's love note to Benedick is to have been written) and a bedsheet.