Play Of the Month: Much Ado About Nothing

Artwork for “Much Ado About Nothing” by Elizabeth Schuch, reproduced with permission.
Artwork for “Much Ado About Nothing” by Elizabeth Schuch, reproduced with permission.

Movie pitch: Masks, Music and Mayhem. A giddy comedy about the follies of love. Two young people, Beatrice and Benedick love each other, but refuse to admit it to anyone, (especially each other), so the handsome prince Don Pedro hatches a plot to bring them together. Will the lovers give in to their true feelings, or will their hopes be dashed by the evil Don John? Filled with songs, dances, and excellent performances, Much Ado About Nothing has charmed audiences for many generations, and now you and your family can appreciate its charms.

My two cents-

The play’s title is actually a double pun. “Note-ing” for the Elizabethans meant ‘watching’ or ‘spying.’ The plot device of people overhearing conversations occurs four times in the play, and leads to some of the best comic moments of the play. The first two times, our heroes Benedick and Beatrice, who have been bickering for the first third of the play, overhear people talking about them in separate conversations. In these scenes, Benedick and Beatrice discover that they are secretly in love with each other, sort of like the Beatles’ song: “She Loves You.” Learning their secret love convinces the two heroes to stop bickering, and to start taking steps toward becoming husband and wife.

The third time we see this device of spying or ‘noting’ however, its consequences are terrible. In Act III, the villainous Don John sets up Claudio by arranging him to see a woman who looks like his fiancée Hero, speaking to another man (heavily implying that Hero and this mystery man are also having sex). This set-up enrages Claudio so much, that he accuses Hero of adultery in front of the entire wedding assembly.

When Claudio accuses Hero of adultery, he sets up the other pun in the title. ‘No-thing’ in Elizabethan times meant ‘no penis,’ in other words, a woman’s genitalia. Therefore in this scene where Claudio angrily denounces Hero as a whore, he is literally making “much ado” both about her virginity, her ‘no-thing,’ and about the adultery that did not occur, (nothing).

The fourth instance of ‘noting’ in this play is also the deus ex-machina of the play; the convenient plot device that ends the conflict between Hero, Claudio, and to a lesser extent, Benedick and Beatrice, (since Benedick initially tries to support Claudio while Beatrice demands that Benedick kill Claudio in a duel). In Act IV, a foolish constable named Dogberry and his rag-tag watch overhear Don John’s henchman Boraccio confessing that he helped Don John deceive Claudio by courting his girlfriend Margaret in Hero’s clothes. His confession vindicates Hero, condemns Don John, and allows Claudio to apologize to Hero and marry her at last. As Boraccio puts it: “What your wisdoms could not discover, these shallow fools have brought to life.”

To sum up, when you think about the title of the play and its multiple meanings, you can see the central points of the plot. You can also see that the play is full of wit and humor, and that, unlike a tragedy, no one really gets hurt; although Hero is accused and disgraced, neither she nor anyone else suffers any permanent pain in this play. It’s only a giddy romp through love and intrigue with some colorful characters to make it enjoyable for everyone.

Famous Lines- Just like Comedy Of Errors, The term “Much Ado About Nothing” has become a household term, meaning that someone is getting all worked up over nothing.

General Data

Title: Much Ado About Nothing

Playwright: William Shakespeare

Year Written: approx. 1599

Source: Castigiliogne’s The Courtier (1561)

Genre: Elizabethan Comedy: Prose/ Verse

Play Data

Structure: Five Acts, 17 scenes, 5 acts 1,062 lines (uncut)

Act I: 4 scenes, Act II: 4 Scenes

Setting: The estate of Signior Leonato of Messina Italy

Characters: 23 characters 14 male characters, 11 female characters,

Character Notes:

The Soldiers

Don Pedro of Aragon Behind the name: Greek in origin, meaning “Descendent of (St.) Peter.” Don Pedro is the prince of Aragon, who has just finished fighting his brother Don John and called a truce. Don Pedro never seems to concern himself with the troubles of ruling the kingdom or achieving greater wealth or power. Rather, he concerns himself only with the happiness of the people around him, especially his trusted lieutenants Benedick and Claudio. In short, he is the ideal kind of monarch; a goodhearted man, who just happens to be a future king. Words that come to mind- Heroic, Charming, Trusting.

Benedick Behind the name: Latin in origin, meaning: “Blessed.” Benedick is a lord of the Spanish kingdom of Aragon who owes allegiance and military service to Don Pedro. He is an incredibly intelligent and learned man, who thinks very highly of himself. He also secretly loves Beatrice, but won’t admit it to her face. Words that come to mind- Proud, Witty, Childish, Valliant.

Claudio A young Count who helped overthrow the Bastard Don John. He loves Hero, but is easily convinced that she is unfaithful. Words that come to mind: Romantic, passionate, dupe.

The Traitors

Don John Behind the Name: John derives from the Hebrew Yohanan, “God has favored him.” The name probably has connections with the bastard brother of the Spanish king Phillip II, who fought the Turkish armada in 1571. Don John is Don Pedro’s bastard brother. After his defeat, he broods constantly on how to get revenge against his brother, Claudio, and everyone else in the play. Words that Come To Mind: Childish, Egotistical, Manipulative.

Boracchio Behind the Name: Boraccio’s name comes from an Italian word that means “drunkard.” Boraccio is the central engine of the plot. He devises Don John’s plan to shame Hero and arranges the tryst between himself and Margaret that deceives Claudio and the prince. If it were not for Boraccio, Hero’s wedding would have gone as planned and there would be no conflict in the plot other than the mild fights of Benedick and Beatrice. Boraccio probably fought on the side of Don John in the recently-concluded war, since he and Conrad are the only in whom people Don John confides. Words that Come to Mind: Drunk, Mischievous, Cunning.

Conrad Behind the Name: Conrad is based on a Germanic name that means “Bold in counsel.” Conrad is the only person who seems to genuinely like Don John. He seems to care how Don John feels, and gives him some sound advice. Unlike Boraccio, Conrad receives no reward for his council, but still remains loyal to Don John. It is up to the actor to decide why. Words That Come To Mind: Confidant, Loyal

Men Who Live at the Estate of Leonato

Leonato Behind the Name: The prefix “Leo” refers to the Latin word for ‘lion,’ which explains her powerful temper. He is the owner of a wealthy estate in Messina, and protective of his daughter Hero and as such, he has very deep reactions in response to what happens to her. When Claudio proposes to Hero both father and daughter are overjoyed, but when Hero is suspected of adultery, Leonato explodes in cascades of grief and fury. Words That Come To Mind: Host, father, passionate, Italian.

Antonio Behind the Name: Derivative of the Latin name “Antony,” which probably derives from anthros, or “Flower.” Antonia is Leonata’s brother. Like his brother, Antonio passes between great extremes of love and hate; alternating deep love toward Hero, and deep contempt for the Prince and Claudio, turning on a knife’s edge. In a sense, Antonio is like an older version of Claudio; just as impulsive, just as credulous, and just as prone to slander the innocent. Words that Come to Mind: Old, Loving, Passionate

Friar Francis Behind the name: “Francis” is an old French word meaning ‘liberal’ or ‘generous.’ The name might indicate that he is from the Franciscan Order of monks. Friar Francis helps vindicate Hero, first by advocating her innocence, then by devising a plan to restore her broken reputation. Phrase That Comes To Mind: Like Friar Lawrence in Romeo and Juliet, he is the Deus Ex Machina, the instrument of God who helps sort out the chaos caused by Don John and Boraccio by saving Hero’s life when she is accused of adultery in Act IV.

The Women

Beatrice Behind the name: A complex name for a complex character; Beatrice is an Italian form of the Latin “Beatrix” which means both ‘traveler,’ and ‘(she) who makes happy.’ Like Benedick, her name also derives from a Latin word that means “blessed” One of Shakespeare’s greatest heroines and arguably one of the greatest characters of all time. Like Benedick, Beatrice is very intelligent and has a very high opinion of her own wit. She also shares Benedick’s distrust of committing to the opposite sex. Beatrice seems to believe that marriage will eliminate her independence as a woman, which is why she claims that marriage is swiftly followed by repentance. Words That Come To Mind: Wise, Virtuous, Independent, Proud.

Hero Behind the Name: “Hero” comes from the Latin Heros which means “demi-god,” it later became associated with all the demi gods of Greek myth. A variant of the same word means,“ To save, deliver, preserve, or protect.” Hero is the polar opposite of Beatrice: she loves being in love and distrusts no one. When she is accused of adultery, she endures it like a Christian saint, passively waiting for God to bring the truth to light. Words that Come To Mind: Romantic, Naïve, Saint-like.

Margaret Behind The Name: Margaret comes from an old Greek word meaning “Pearl” Margaret is Hero’s waiting gentlewoman, and Antonia’s daughter who has a brief fling with Boraccio. She engages in some witty, lustful repartee with Benedick and Hero, and gently teases Beatrice in Act III that to cure her cold, Beatrice should get some distilled ‘Carduus Benedictus’, a clever pun on Benedick’s name. She talks lustfully and loves to dance, but (if we believe Boraccio), she is still a virtuous woman at heart. Words that Come To Mind: Witty, Lustful, Good-hearted.

Ursula: Behind the Name: Her name derives from the Latin Ursula, which means “she-bear.” Her name seems to imply that she is wild and untamed sexually. Ursula teams up with Hero to gull Beatrice into loving Benedick.

The Watch

Dogberry Behind The Name: In the 1550s, the fruit of the dogwood tree was called “Dogberry” because they were considered cheap, or “fit for a dog.” Dogberry is a constable who works for the local Justice Of the Peace in Messina. He unwittingly discovers the plot to slander Hero and captures Boraccio and Conrad, making it possible for Claudio to re-unite with Hero, and everyone to live happily ever after. Constables like Dogberry were unpaid officials who were periodically selected from the local population. They had no formal training in law enforcement, and their main job was to clear away drunks, close up shops, and keep control of crowds during public events. Words that Come To Mind: Deluded, Stupid, Egotistical.

Verges Behind the Name: “Verges” comes from the Middle French “rod or wand of office,” hence “scope, territory dominated,” which in term comes from the Latin. virga

Verges is a Parrish Constable, an unpaid officer appointed to keep the peace for a small church community. He is Dogberry’s immediate inferior, which makes him the butt of Dogberry’s jokes. Verges never complains about Dogberry’s abuse, and agrees with nearly everything he says. The two form a partnership that can best be described as ‘the blind leading the blind,’ in that neither one has any idea how to be an effective officer. Words That Come To Mind: Old, Devoted, Headborough

Play Summary The handsome soldiers of Don Pedro of Aragon have come back to rest form war at the home of Signior Leonato, but a merry war begins between Signior Benedick, a witty lord, and Lady Beatrice, a confident and brilliant lady. They tease, torment, and at the same time titillate each other, which gives the prince the idea to try and set them up just by making them overhear each other’s false profession of love. Unfortunately, evil is lurking in the form of Don John, who wants to destroy the other pair of lovers in the play, Hero and Claudio by slandering them. But all ends well with the help of a wise friar, and a bunch of stupid watchmen, overhear yet another conversation that gives the game away. In short, this show is basically a long game of “he said, she said.”

Concerns for Directors One of the most challenging scenes in Shakespeare is the scene in Act IV, Scene I, where Claudio and Leonato turn on a dime from being kind and loving, to savage and full of rage, while Benedick and Beatrice go from being cynical and witty to passionate and tender. It requires deep exploration of the characters and commitment from the actors. Another interesting decision

Concerns for Teachers This play raises questions of what true love is, and shows how love can be nearly destroyed by rumors and lack of faith. It also draws attention to the way we treat women in our society. One starts to sympathize with Beatrice’s hatred of romantic love, once the viewer sees what loving the wrong man did to Hero.

Tomorrow I’ll give you a new post about artwork inspired by Much Ado About Nothing, as well as reviews of some of the notable film versions of the show!

Till tomorrow!


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