“Some, Cupid kills with arrows,
some with traps…”
At the home of Leonato, Governor of Messina, Sicily, a messenger heralds the arrival of Don Pedro, Prince of Aragon, and his men. Among them are Benedick and Claudio, both lords, and Don John, Don Pedro’s bastard brother. Leonato greets them with his daughter Hero and niece Beatrice in his company. Upon the arrival of Don Pedro and his companions, Beatrice and Benedick take up arms against each other in their ongoing battle of wit. As this pair spars, Claudio takes note of Hero and Don Pedro arranges for the two to be wed with Leonato’s consent. While these blissful arrangements are being made, maleficent Don John plots to undermine this budding romance.
After a celebratory feast and masquerade ball in the evening, Don Pedro, Leonato, and their companions plot to trick Beatrice and Benedick into declaring their love for one another. Meanwhile, a more malicious trick unfolds as Don John brings Claudio a fabricated report of Hero’s infidelity on the eve of the young couple’s wedding. Convinced of her guilt, Claudio heartlessly shames Hero on the wedding day. Believing her to be innocent, the friar suggests she fake her death in order to make the accusers feel remorse for their slander. In the midst of this catastrophe, Benedick and Beatrice confess their mutual love, which is immediately put to the test.
The truth of Don John’s plot is revealed thanks to the work of the hapless town constable, Dogberry. Leonato entreats Claudio and Don Pedro to memorialize his daughter. Recognizing Hero’s innocence, Claudio promises to marry Leonato’s niece in her place. Taking Leonato’s instruction, Beatrice, Hero, Margaret, and Ursula appear on the wedding day in disguise. Claudio takes the disguised Hero’s hand to wed her and she removes her mask and agrees (again) to marry him; Benedick and Beatrice likewise plan to marry. The group learns of Don John’s flight and capture, but defer his punishment to another day so that they may celebrate.
Much Ado About Nothing is one of Shakespeare’s most enduring and popular comedies. I think this is true not only because of Beatrice and Benedick, who banter and argue their way into love and matrimony; nor Dogberry, who’s misuse of the English language is often hilarious and sometimes apt; nor because Claudio and Hero overcome serious impediments to their marriage, but because the play itself deals with so many important and relevant issues. It’s an evening of delightful entertainment while it offers meditations on the nature of love and marriage, honesty and deceit, honor and humiliation, trust and betrayal, truth and lies, expectations and suspicions, class and society.
The play opens with the men returning from a victorious war. I’ve placed it in the period immediately following WWI. The Allies were victorious and it ushered in the age Scott Fitzgerald coined “The Jazz Age.” There was a sense of liberation after the turmoil of war and society was undergoing significant changes. Jazz blended the musical elements inherited from Africa and Europe, men and women, black and white, began to come together in unprecedented ways. Women were finally able to vote. The hem of their dresses rose significantly and the length of their hair was quite a bit shorter. And a certain amount of anxiety always accompanies social change. There’s a push and pull between the old and the new as human beings redefine their roles, relationships and relevance. This is the underpinning of the play.
I’ve often wondered about the title: Much Ado About NOTHING? There is certainly much more than “nothing” going on in this play. However, Elizabethan audiences would have understood that “nothing” and “noting” were homophones, that is, they were pronounced similarly, if not the same. So, while the title reads as “nothing,” it speaks as “noting.” And the action of the play is chock full of taking note of each other, of writing notes, of eavesdropping, observing, hiding and revealing, which invariably lead to both comic and serious mistakes and misunderstandings. “Nothing” was also, ironically, Elizabethan slang for a woman’s sexuality.