Much Ado About Nothing

Much Ado About Nothing Study Guide

Much Ado About Nothing was first published in 1600 and was likely written in 1598. The 1600 printing was the only copy published during Shakespeare's lifetime, and bears the title inscription describing that the play "hath been sundrie times publickly acted by the right honourable, the Lord Chamberlaine his seruants". The play is also listed in the Stationers' Register as of August 4, 1600, along with As You Like It and Henry V and all are marked "to be staied", i.e. not published until further permission is given by the company. Scholars tend to believe that the Lord Chamberlain's men were fighting to ensure they would receive payment for the publication of the manuscript, a dispute that was obviously resolved given the subsequent publication later that year.

Scholars tend to agree that the 1600 Quarto originated from Shakespeare's own manuscript. Several stage directions and the inclusion of characters subsequently abandoned from the play lend credence to this belief. The First Folio of 1623 relied on the 1600 publication of the play.

Much Ado About Nothing conflates two separate stories into one plot: the baiting of Benedick and Beatrice into a declaration of love and the deception of Claudio into mistakenly thinking that Hero is unchaste. There is not specific source for the first story, although Chaucer's Troilus and Criseyde provides a basis where two people who scorn love fall in love with each other. The for the second story of a lady falsely accused, however, there are numerous possible sources. Ludovico Ariosto's version in Canto V of Orlando Furioso in 1516 was translated into English in 1591 by Sir John Harington or Matteo Bandello's twenty-second Novella from 1554 and translated into French by Belleforest in 1590 are two possible versions that Shakespeare may have known.

What is striking about Much Ado About Nothing is that it is written largely in prose. This contrasts with the blank verse that fills many of Shakespeare's other plays although it seems more familiar to modern audiences used to plain prose. Unlike the bland modern speech that we are so used to, Shakespeare's prose is rich, full of colorful imagery, and plays with words. He even allows Benedick to make fun of the prose used by Claudio, commenting that Claudio used to speak plainly whereas he now uses orthography.

Benedick as a character derives his mannerisms from a manual by Baldassare Castiglione titled The Book of the Courtier. Published in English translation in 1561, the book describes a conversation between several intellectual men and women through which they discuss that qualities that a perfect courtier would possess. They create a courtier who can make both love and war, assist the Prince, dance elegantly, and fully grasp diplomatic situations. Their courtiers also should be able to sing, engage in philosophical musings and tell humorous stories. Benedick is the archetype of this ideal figure, a man called upon to perform all of these roles in this play.

It is important to realize that "nothing" was pronounced "noting" in Shakespeare's time. This is in fact a play obsesses with noting, or the lack of it. As a result, there is a special effort made by the characters to mask their true emotions in order to protect themselves. Beatrice and Benedick are merely projected manifestations of this; in their seemingly carefree attitudes towards customs they are actually far more in touch with social niceties than any of their peers. Indeed, it is this sensitivity to being shamed that underlies the entire plot of Much Ado About Nothing, from Leonato who would prefer his daughter to die as a result of her humiliation to Benedick whose intellectual prowess is challenged by Beatrice in the first act. A large part of the shame rests on men's fears of being duped by the women, leading to many jokes about cuckoldry and allowing Don John to viciously malign poor Hero.

The social illusions that are generated in order to survive in this society are shown in two distinctly different ways through Benedick/Beatrice and Hero/Claudio. However, there is a third manifestation present, that of evil, in the form of Don John. Shakespeare comically makes Don John a magnificently impotent character whose plots can be discovered by a fool like Dogberry. In spite of the ease with which Dogberry uncovers the plot against Hero, we are left wondering whether this play could just as easily have turned horribly tragic in its final moments. Indeed, Shakespeare takes up the tragic theme several years later, producing the tale of Othello.