Introduction: Much Ado About Nothing
Much Ado About Nothing dates from around 1598, grouped with Shakespeare’s sophisticated middle comedies As You Like It and Twelfth Night, but sharing Merry Wives’ more realistic use of prose. Its traditional plot (resembling the twenty-second of Bandello’s novelle, and the fifth book of Ariosto’s Orlando Furioso) presents the disruption of the marriage of Claudio, protégé of the Spanish ruler Don Pedro. Don Pedro’s envious half-brother, the Bastard Don John, fakes promiscuity by the prospective bride, Hero, daughter of the Italian governor of the Sicilian city of Messina. After another false report, of her death from grief, her reputation is saved by the bumbling city watchmen, Elizabethan ‘Keystone Kops’, led by the comically incompetent Dogberry.
This plot line is catalyst for a theme of greater audience interest: the complex evolution of the affair between Benedick (Claudio’s friend) and Beatrice (Hero’s cousin). This pair is at odds after their antecedent relationship was broken off by Benedick’s obtuseness – and Beatrice displays her resentment in a witty war with her ex-lover. Their companions intervene with a plot of staged over-hearings to convince each that the other’s love is merely repressed. These over-hearings govern the play’s punning title, for “nothing” is a homonym of “noting” – and also an Elizabethan term for female genitalia. While others accept Hero’s guilt, Beatrice and Benedick join to defend her. After Claudio’s devotion to her revives, they wryly admit their own recommitment: Benedick’s becoming “engaged” to Beatrice (4.3.331 in Riverside) anticipates our modern premarital contract.
This paradoxical progression of the love/hate relationship of Beatrice and Benedick delights audiences: Leonard Digges versifies for the 1640 edition of Shakespeare’s Poems: “let but Beatrice / And Benedick be seen, lo in a trice / The Cockpit, galleries, boxes, all are full.” Later vividly dueling pairs include John Gielgud with Peggy Ashcroft, and Kenneth Branagh with Emma Thompson. Critics often censure what they consider “the main plot” concerning Hero and Claudio for weak characters and melodramatic effects, but the feigned deaths of beloveds recur in Shakespeare, from Juliet to Hermione. Plausibly Hero resists Beatrice’s domination via a plot analogous to that against herself, while Claudio resembles misled lovers Romeo and Bertram.
The exchanges of Beatrice and Benedick match courtly battles of the sexes in Marguerite de Navarre’s Heptameron (Fourth Tale), Castiglione’s Courtier, and those between Shakespeare’s own couples, from Berowne and Rosaline to Antony and Cleopatra. Beatrice seems a proto-feminist in defying the patriarchal Spanish rulers of Sicily, who victimize dutiful women like Hero. Macabre Don John resembles the historical Bastard Don John of Austria (half-brother of King Philip II) who also resided in Messina, after defeating the Turkish fleet at Lepanto (1571). He notoriously planned to offset his bastardy by raising an Armada to conquer and rule Britain, and then marry Mary, Queen of Scots. Later love/hate pairings akin to Beatrice and Benedick include Mirabell and Millamant in Congreve’s The Way of the World, Elizabeth and Darcy in Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, and Martha and George in Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?
Contributed by Hugh Macrae Richmond