By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)
Much Ado about Nothing is one of Shakespeare’s finest and best-loved comedies. With the battle of wits between Beatrice and Benedick and the plot involving young lovers Claudio and Hero, the play touches upon sexual jealousy, trust, and the importance of separating illusion from reality, among other prominent themes. Before we offer some words of analysis of Much Ado about Nothing, it might be worth briefly recapping the plot of the play.
Much Ado about Nothing: plot summary
At the centre of Much Ado about Nothing are two couples: Beatrice and Benedick and their friends, Hero and Claudio. The play takes place in Messina on the Italian island of Sicily.
Don Pedro has defeated his evil brother Don John in battle, but has allowed him to live and has pardoned him. However, Don John is jealous of his brother and his brother’s friends and followers, and seeks to cause trouble. The play opens with Don Pedro being welcomed to Messina by Leonato, the governor of Sicily.
Claudio, a young friend of Don Pedro, takes a shine to a beautiful young woman, Hero. Don Pedro woos Hero for Claudio, and Claudio and Hero arrange to be married. Don John sets about trying to drive division between the happy couple.
While Claudio and Hero are finding love, Claudio’s friend Benedick and Hero’s friend Beatrice are engaged in a battle of wits, insulting each other in public and trying to give the impression that they cannot stand each other. However, their friends see through this and realise – even if Beatrice and Benedick aren’t fully aware of it themselves – that they are only pretending to hate each other because, deep down, they fancy each other.
At a masked ball, Don Pedro, Claudio, and Hero therefore decide to trick Beatrice and Benedick into falling for each other. Meanwhile, Don John hatches a plan to drive a wedge between Claudio and Hero. He gets his henchman Borachio to woo Hero’s gentlewoman, Margaret, on hero’s balcony, with Margaret made up to look like Hero. Don John then makes sure that Claudio witnesses this, so the young lover is convinced his wife-to-be is unfaithful.
At Claudio and Hero’s wedding, Claudio denounces his bride as unfaithful, and she faints in shock at being (falsely) accused. Leonato tells everyone to pretend that Hero is dead. Benedick, having been gulled by his friends into thinking Beatrice secretly loves him, declares his love for her, and she reciprocates. But she tells him to prove his love by killing Claudio, for what he has done to her friend, Hero.
Meanwhile, Borachio’s big mouth gets him into trouble: the local constable of the night watch, Dogberry (whose speech is marked by comical malapropisms), overhears him boasting about Don John’s scheme and arrests him. Dogberry and his sidekick, Verges, reveal Borachio’s – and, by association, Don John’s – guilt, just after Benedick has challenged Claudio to a duel.
Claudio, realising he unjustly denounced the innocent Hero, agrees, as penance, to marry Leonato’s niece (whom conveniently no one has seen before). When she is brought out for the wedding, she is revealed to be Hero, alive and well. They marry, everyone celebrates, Don John is punished, and Beatrice and Benedick appear to be finally overcoming their verbal chafing and will get together.
Much Ado about Nothing: analysis
Let’s begin with the title of Shakespeare’s comedy: Much Ado about Nothing. It’s well-known that ‘nothing’ was Elizabethan slang for the female genitals, so Shakespeare’s title is, on one level, a bawdy pun: the whole play is a load of fuss over sex.
This is certainly true of many Shakespeare comedies, where lust and love uneasily coexist: Claudio’s attraction to Hero is a result of her beauty, rather than anything deeper, and as soon as he suspects her virginity is non-existent (or has been reduced to ‘nothing’) – a suspicion he is suspiciously quick to adopt – he denounces her vehemently in public at what should have been their wedding.
By contrast, Benedick (his own name can perhaps be translated into another dirty pun, i.e. ‘well-dicked’ or well-endowed?) actively seeks to de-sex or unsex Beatrice as a woman, showing how plot and subplot work together, as Shakespeare uses the second, and secondary, romantic couple to offset but also complement the qualities found in the primary couple of Claudio and Hero.
There’s a paradox at work here, though, for in doing his best to undermine Beatrice’s eligibility as wife material, he is actually, unbeknownst to himself (or perhaps only partly beknownst), highlighting or even elevating her suitability as a mate for himself. Her ability to keep up with his witty putdowns confirms that she is easily a match for him, not only as a verbal sparring partner but as a partner in the broader romantic sense. People don’t go and see revivals of Much Ado about Nothing for Claudio and Hero, but for Beatrice and Benedick and their flyting-as-flirting.
Indeed, the title Much Ado about Nothing is also thought to hide another pun, on the word ‘noting’, which referred to the sort of banter or repartee which Beatrice and Benedick engage in. (Whilst we’re delving into the wordplay and verbal significance of titles and names, it’s worth mentioning that ‘Benedick’ also summons benediction or blessing, while ‘Beatrice’ means ‘blessed’, showing that the two are etymologically as well as literally made for each other. Although since ‘Beatrice’ is sometimes taken to mean ‘one who makes [somebody] blessed’, we might ask, of the two of them, who is the benefactor and who is the beneficiary?)
One final twist on that multifaceted, multi-punning title, Much Ado about Nothing. ‘Noting’ also referred to overhearing and ‘noting’ something down, and obviously this is of significance to Shakespeare’s play in several ways.
First, Don John’s malevolent plot hinges on Claudio being made to overhear or witness ‘Hero’ (really Margaret) flirting with another man; second, Don Pedro, Claudio, and Hero’s (much more benevolent) plot to convince Beatrice and Benedick together turns on the two of them being made to overhear the three friends talking about how the other one secretly loves them: so Benedick overhears his friends talking about how much Beatrice admires him, and vice versa.
Third, Borachio is ‘noted’ or overheard bragging about his part in bringing to fruition Don John’s plot, and Dogberry’s subsequent ‘noting’ of the events and clearing up of the mystery.
Much Ado about Nothing is one of Shakespeare’s more straightforward comedies, in which the plot is simple but the fun is to be had in the skirmishes of wit between the secondary couple, who are far more interesting than the play’s nominal hero (no pun intended) and heroine. It’s hardly surprising that, for many readers and theatregoers, its unofficial alternative title is ‘the Beatrice and Benedick show’.