Much Ado About Nothing is a comedy by William Shakespeare thought to have been written in 1598 and 1599, as Shakespeare was approaching the middle of his career. The play was included in the First Folio, published in 1623.
By means of "noting" (which, in Shakespeare's day, sounded similar to "nothing" as in the play's title, and which means gossip, rumor, and overhearing), Benedick and Beatrice are tricked into confessing their love for each other, and Claudio is tricked into rejecting Hero at the altar on the erroneous belief that she has been unfaithful. At the end, Benedick and Beatrice join forces to set things right, and the others join in a dance celebrating the marriages of the two couples.
In Messina, a messenger brings news that Don Pedro, a prince from Aragon, will return that night from a successful battle, Claudio being among his soldiers. Beatrice, Leonato's niece, asks the messenger about Benedick, Don Pedro's companion, and makes sarcastic remarks about his ineptitude as a soldier. Leonato explains that "There is a kind of merry war betwixt Signor Benedick and her."
Upon the arrival of the soldiers, Leonato welcomes Don Pedro and invites him to stay for a month, Benedick and Beatrice resume their "merry war " and Pedro's illegitimate brother Don John is introduced. Claudio's feelings for Hero, Leonato's only daughter, are rekindled upon seeing her, and Claudio soon announces to Benedick his intention to court her. Benedick, who openly despises marriage, tries to dissuade his friend but Don Pedro encourages the marriage. Benedick swears that he will never get married. Don Pedro laughs at him and tells him that when he has found the right person he shall get married.
A masquerade ball is planned in celebration of the end of the war, giving a disguised Don Pedro the opportunity to woo Hero on Claudio's behalf. Don John uses this situation to get revenge on his brother Don Pedro by telling young Claudio that Don Pedro is wooing Hero for himself. A furious Claudio confronts Don Pedro, but the misunderstanding is quickly resolved and Claudio wins Hero's hand in marriage.
Meanwhile, Benedick disguises himself and dances with Beatrice. Beatrice proceeds to tell this "mystery man" that Benedick is "the prince's jester, a very dull fool." Benedick, enraged by her words, swears he will have revenge. Don Pedro and his men, bored at the prospect of waiting a week for the wedding, harbour a plan to match-make between Benedick and Beatrice. They arrange for Benedick to overhear a conversation in which they declare that Beatrice is madly in love with him but afraid to tell him; that their pride is the main impediment to their courtship. Meanwhile, Hero and her maid Ursula ensure Beatrice overhears them discuss Benedick's undying love for her. The tricks have the desired effect: both Benedick and Beatrice are delighted to think they are the object of unrequited love, and both accordingly resolve to mend their faults and reconcile.
Meanwhile, Don Pedro's brother Don John, the "bastard prince", plots to stop the wedding, embarrass his brother and wreak misery on Leonato and Claudio. He informs Don Pedro and Claudio that Hero is unfaithful, and arranges for them to see John's associate Borachio enter her bedchamber where he has an amorous liaison (actually with Margaret, Hero's chambermaid). Claudio and Don Pedro are taken in, and Claudio vows to humiliate Hero publicly.
At the wedding the next day, Claudio denounces Hero before the stunned guests and storms off with Don Pedro. Hero faints. Her humiliated father Leonato expresses the wish that she would die. The presiding friar intervenes, believing Hero to be innocent. He suggests the family must fake Hero's death in order to extract the truth and Claudio's remorse. Prompted by the day's harrowing events, Benedick and Beatrice confess their love for each other. Beatrice then asks Benedick to slay Claudio as proof of his devotion, since he has slandered her kinswoman. Benedick is horrified and at first denies her request. Leonato and his brother Antonio blame Claudio for Hero's apparent death and challenge him to a duel. Benedick then does the same. Benedick is following the commands of Beatrice and is one of the few who believe Hero. Luckily, on the night of Don John's treachery, the local Watch apprehended Borachio and his ally Comrade. Despite the comic ineptness of the Watch (headed by constable Dogberry, a master of malapropisms), they have overheard the duo discussing their evil plans. The Watch arrest the villains and eventually obtain a confession, informing Leonato of Hero's innocence. Though Don John has fled the city, a force is sent to capture him. Claudio, stricken with remorse at Hero's supposed death, agrees to her father's demand that he marry Antonio's daughter, "almost the copy of my child that's dead" and carry on the family name.
At the wedding, the bride is revealed to be Hero, still living. Claudio is overjoyed. Beatrice and Benedick, prompted by their friends' interference, finally and publicly confess their love for each other. As the play draws to a close, a messenger arrives with news of Don John's capture – but Benedick proposes to postpone his punishment to another day so that the couples can enjoy their new-found happiness. Don Pedro is lonely because he hasn't found love. Thus Benedick gives him the advice "Get thee a wife."
Stories of lovers deceived into believing each other false were common currency in northern Italy in the sixteenth century. Shakespeare's immediate source could have been one of the Novelle ("Tales") by Matteo Bandello of Mantua, dealing with the tribulations of Sir Timbreo and his betrothed Fenicia Lionata in Messina after King Piero's defeat of Charles of Anjou, perhaps through the translation into French by François de Belleforest. Another version featuring lovers Ariodante and Ginevra, with the servant Dalinda impersonating Ginevra on the balcony, appears in Book V of Orlando Furioso by Ludovico Ariosto, published in an English translation in 1591. The character of Benedick too has a counterpart in a commentary upon marriage in Orlando Furioso, but the witty wooing of Beatrice and Benedick is original and very unusual in style and syncopation. One version of the Claudio/Hero plot is told by Edmund Spenser in "The Faerie Queen" (Book II, Canto iv).
The earliest printed text states that Much Ado About Nothing was "sundry times publicly acted" prior to 1600 and it is likely that the play made its debut in the autumn or winter of 1598–1599. The earliest recorded performances are two that were given at Court in the winter of 1612–1613, during the festivities preceding the marriage of Princess Elizabeth with Frederick V, Elector Palatine (14 February 1613). The play was published in quarto in 1600 by the stationers Andrew Wise and William Aspley. This was the only edition prior to the First Folio in 1623.
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 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.
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 emphasized in certain plays of the period, it was also challenged. Amussen notes that the undoing 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 behavior. 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 honor 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 Balthazar's song "Sigh No More," which presents men as 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. 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 lead someone to realize 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. These modes of deceit play into a complementary theme of emotional manipulation and the ease with which the characters' sentiments are redirected and their propensities exploited as a means to an end. The characters' feelings for each other are played as vehicles to reach an ultimate goal of engagement rather than seen as an end in themselves.
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 she acts 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 near-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.
The play was very popular in its early decades, as it would be later: in a poem published in 1640, Leonard Digges wrote, "...let but Beatrice / And Benedick be seen, lo in a trice / The Cockpit galleries, boxes, all are full."
After the theatres re-opened during the Restoration, Sir William Davenant staged The Law Against Lovers (1662), which inserted Beatrice and Benedick into an adaptation of Measure for Measure. Another adaptation, The Universal Passion, combined Much Ado with a play by Molière (1737). Shakespeare's text had been revived by John Rich at Lincoln's Inn Fields (1721). David Garrick first played Benedick in 1748 and continued to play him until 1776.
The great nineteenth-century stage team Henry Irving and Ellen Terry counted Benedick and Beatrice as their greatest triumph and Charles Kemble also had a great success as Benedick. John Gielgud made Benedick one of his signature roles between 1931 and 1959, playing the part opposite the Beatrice of Diana Wynyard, Peggy Ashcroft, and Margaret Leighton. The longest running Broadway production is A. J. Antoon's 1972 staging starring Sam Waterston, Kathleen Widdoes, and Barnard Hughes, and Derek Jacobi won a Tony Award for playing Benedick in 1984. Jacobi had also played Benedick in the Royal Shakespeare Company's highly praised 1982 production. Director Terry Hands produced the play on a stage-length mirror, against an unchanging backdrop of painted trees. Sinéad Cusack played Beatrice.
There have been several screen adaptations of Much Ado About Nothing, and almost all of them have been made for television.
An adaptation is the 1973 New York Shakespeare Festival production by Joseph Papp, shot on videotape and released on VHS and DVD, that presents more of the text than Kenneth Branagh's version. It is directed by A. J. Antoon. The Papp production stars Sam Waterston, Kathleen Widdoes, and Barnard Hughes.
The 1984 BBC Television version stars Lee Montague as Leonato, Cherie Lunghi as Beatrice, Katharine Levy as Hero, Jon Finch as Don Pedro, Robert Lindsay as Benedick, Robert Reynolds as Claudio, Gordon Whiting as Antonio and Vernon Dobtcheff as Don John. An earlier BBC television version with Maggie Smith and Robert Stephens, adapted from Franco Zeffirelli's stage production for the National Theatre Company's London stage production, was broadcast in February 1967.
In 2005 the BBC adapted the story by setting it in the modern-day studios of Wessex Tonight, a fictional regional news programme, as part of the ShakespeaRe-Told season, with Damian Lewis, Sarah Parish, and Billie Piper.
The first sound version in English released to cinemas was the highly acclaimed 1993 film by Kenneth Branagh. It starred Branagh as Benedick, Branagh's then-wife Emma Thompson as Beatrice, Denzel Washington as Don Pedro, Keanu Reeves as Don John, Richard Briers as Leonato, Michael Keaton as Dogberry, Robert Sean Leonard as Claudio, Imelda Staunton as Margaret, and Kate Beckinsale in her film debut as Hero.
In 2011, Joss Whedon completed filming of an adaptation, released in June 2013. The cast includes Amy Acker as Beatrice, Alexis Denisof as Benedick, Nathan Fillion as Dogberry, Clark Gregg as Leonato, Reed Diamond as Don Pedro, Fran Kranz as Claudio, Jillian Morgese as Hero, Sean Maher as Don John, Spencer Treat Clark as Borachio, Riki Lindhome as Conrade, Ashley Johnson as Margaret, Tom Lenk as Verges, and Romy Rosemont as the sexton.
In 2012 a filmed version of the live 2011 performance at The Globe was released to cinemas and on DVD.
In 2012 a filmed version of the 2011 performance at Wyndham's Theatre was made available for download or streaming on the Digital Theatre website.
In 2015, a modern movie version of this play was created by Owen Drake entitled Messina High, starring Faye Reagan.
The operas Béatrice et Bénédict (1862) by Hector Berlioz, Paul Puget's Beaucoup de bruit pour rien (pub.1898) and Much Ado About Nothing by Sir Charles Villiers Stanford (1901) are based upon this play.
In 2006 the American Music Theatre Project produced The Boys Are Coming Home, a musical adaptation by Berni Stapleton and Leslie Arden that sets Much Ado About Nothing in America during the Second World War.
In 2017, a YA adaptation was released by author Mckelle George called Speak Easy, Speak Love, where the events of the play take place in the 1920s, focused around a failing speakeasy.
In 2018, author Molly Booth released a summer YA novel adaptation called Nothing Happened, where Claudio and Hero are a homosexual couple, Claudia and Hana.