Act One, Scene One
A messenger arrives in Messina and informs Leonato, the governor, that Don Pedro will be coming to the town with his army. Leonato asks how the war campaign went and learns that no men of high rank lost their lives, and that a man named Claudio received many honors for his valor in battle. Beatrice, the niece of Leonato, asks the messenger if Benedick of Padua has returned from the wars as well. The messenger informs her that he is with Don Pedro's army and has befriended Claudio. Beatrice sarcastically compares Benedick to a disease that men catch and says a great deal of negative things about Benedick.
Don Pedro arrives accompanied by Claudio, Benedick, Balthasar, and Don John (his bastard brother). He greets Leonato and speaks with him while Beatrice and Benedick converse together. Beatrice is caustic and tells Benedick it is a good thing that he does not love any of the ladies because then they would have to put up with him far more than they do now. Benedick is unable to compete with her wit and they finally break off conversation.
Don Pedro announces to his men that Leonato has generously allowed them to stay for a month. Leonato turns to Don John and tells him he is glad that Don John and Don Pedro are reconciled. Don John says, "I am not a man of many words, but I thank you" (1.1.127). Everyone leaves except Claudio and Benedick.
Claudio turns to Benedick and asks him, "didst thou note the daughter of Signor Leonato?" (1.1.130-131). Benedick tells him, "I noted her not, but I looked on her" (1.1.132) and makes fun of Hero's complexion and height. Claudio tells him he is serious about her and wants to know what Benedick really thinks. Don Pedro enters and asks Benedick to tell him what is going on. Benedick reveals that Claudio is in love with Hero.
Don Pedro agrees that Hero would be a good match for Claudio. He then turns to Benedick and asks him why he mocks Claudio. Benedick tells him he wishes to remain a bachelor for the rest of his life and that he will never flush with love for a woman. Don Pedro tells him that he will see Benedick in love before he dies. He then sends Benedick away to Leonato.
Claudio asks Don Pedro is Leonato has any sons and learns that Hero alone is his heir. Don Pedro promises to speak with Leonato about arranging a match between them, but Claudio is afraid to speak to Hero and tell her he loves her. Don Pedro informs him that there will be a masked ball that night and that he will pretend to be Claudio and woo Hero in Claudio's name.
Act One, Scene Two
Leonato and Antonio, his elder brother, meet and discuss Leonato's guests. Antonio informs Leonato that a servant of his overheard Don Pedro and Claudio speaking together in his peach orchard. The man reported that Don Pedro told Claudio he loved Hero and would acknowledge it that night at the dance, intending to go to Leonato if he found Hero consenting. Leonato is excited by this news, but tells Antonio to keep it a secret until Don Pedro actually comes to him. He only decides to tell Hero so that she may prepare an answer.
Act One, Scene Three
Conrad approaches Don John and asks him why he is so sad looking. Don John tells him that there is not reason, merely that he prefers to be the way he is. When Conrad points out that since Don John only recently was reconciled with Don Pedro, he should try to seem happy, Don John exclaims, "I had rather be a canker in a hedge than a rose in his grace" (1.3.21-22).
Borachio, another friend of Don John, arrives and informs Don John that he has overheard his brother and Claudio plotting a marriage with Hero. He hid behind a wall hanging and listened to them discuss how Don Pedro would woo Hero and then give her to Claudio. Don John tells them to come with him so that he can figure out a way to thwart Claudio.
Much Ado About Nothing opens in a liminal situation with a war that has just ended. The men enter a "golden world" in Messina where the women are already located. In this situation, people fail to take things seriously, causing the war of the wombs to soon turn into a war of words. Benedick and Beatrice are the main examples of male/female rivalry that converts into belligerent wordplay.
The first act portrays all the characters as being very careful to observe social norms, especially those of civilian obligations to the military. This creates a mask of politeness that slowly dissipates throughout the play until by the end there is nothing but directness of speech left. However, the first exchange between Leonato and Don Pedro is a model of politeness, with each man dismissing the problems of having guests for a month as being meaningless. Don Pedro further catalyzes the entire plot by carefully maneuvering the conversation towards Hero, Leonato's daughter.
Don Pedro: "Good Signor Leonato, are you come to meet your
trouble? The fashion of the world is to avoid cost, and you
Leonato: "Never came trouble to my house in the likeness of
your grace; for trouble being gone, comfort should remain, but
when you depart from me, sorrow abides and happiness takes
Don Pedro: "You embrace your charge too willingly. I think this
is your daughter.
Leonato: Her mother hath many times told me so" (1.1.77-86)
Much Ado About Nothing is primarily a play about gossip.Indeed, what does the title mean? It indicates a big fuss about a trifle, and by the end this is exactly what happens. All of Claudio's accusations will come to nothing, causing the play to end the same way as if they never occurred at all.
Shakespeare brilliantly plays on the meanings of nothing throughout this play. The word "nothing" would actually have been pronounced "noting" in his time. It can mean worthless, a person of little worth, or also mean everything, in the sense that much ado is made about everything. Alternatively "nothing" is a word that means female genitalia, Hero's "nothing", an interpretation of the word that is evidenced by how ashamed Hero is of sexual desire.
The pronunciation of "nothing" plays on "noting" as well. To note is to observe or mark carefully, something everyone in the play fails to do. It can also mean to stigmatize or point out, exactly what Claudio does to Hero in the church. Indeed, Claudio's first comment about Hero is whether anyone else noted her, "didst thou note the daughter of Signor Leonato?" (1.1.130-131). Benedick tells him, "I noted her not, but I looked on her" (1.1.132), at which point he proceeds to stigmatize her. Benedick jokes about her complexion and height, thereby "noting" Hero in his own way.
Silence is something that Shakespeare always views with suspicion, and this play is no different. Silence is actually worse than talking because it leads to plotting and conniving. As Don John says, "I am not a man of many words" (1.1.127), thereby marking him as a man who instead will plot against the others. Indeed, it is soon obvious that silence is worse than talking too much, something that Beatrice and Benedick do. The danger of silence also affects the relationship between Hero and Claudio. Since they fail to talk with one another, they never resolve questions relating to the other's motives. Indeed, a crucial first mistake for Claudio is when he allows Don Pedro to speak to Hero for him, thereby creating confusion about Don Pedro's true motives.
Don John is the evil bastard brother in the play. He is only recently reconciled with Don Pedro and he plays the role of a schemer, a discontent and a machiavel. In reality, Don John is merely the excluded character, a man who cannot fit into the society he is unwillingly a part of. When Conrad tries to tell him he should act happy around Don Pedro, he states, "I had rather be a canker in a hedge than a rose in his grace" (1.3.21-22). Don John thus ignores the family network, fails to observe the proper code of conduct, misses the dinner party thrown by Leonato, and rebels against the compulsory set of social rules.
The melancholy of Don John is noted by Conrad who says, "why are you thus out of measure sad?" (1.3.1-2). Don John represents the sadness that is a recurring theme in Shakespeare's comedies. Shylock and Antonio in Merchant of Venice and Egeus in The Comedy of Errors who is condemned to die are other characters who are melancholy. There is no reason for this sadness, and it breeds on itself.