At face value, the title Much Ado about Nothing pronounces the turmoil in the play’s Messina insignificant or trifling. Yet, false accusations about Hero’s virtue, Beatrice’s command that Benedick “kill Claudio,” the villainies of Don John the bastard--are these trivial? Don John is too smug in his manipulations, Leonato and Antonio too energetic in their outrage, Beatrice too vehement, and Benedick too earnest in challenging Claudio for us to believe that slander, love, or villainy are meant to lack significance.
Moreover, Shakespeare left linguistic clues to the contrary. Five times the Bard produced specific puns indicating that the nothing of the title should be read at more than one level. In act 2 scene 3, for instance, a multiple play on words includes note as a verb with several meanings, note as a noun with several meanings, and the “homophonic pun” between noting and nothing (2.3.57n; all references to line numbers are from The Riverside Shakespeare, ed. G. Blakemore Evans [Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1974]):
A browse through the Oxford English Dictionary entries on note interprets the quibbles variously, offering the following interpretations for the above lines (All references to the Oxford English Dictionary are from The Compact Edition [New York: Oxford UP, 1971]):
Don Pedro. If you have more to say, put it in writing, OR if you have more to say, sing it.
Balthazar. Pay attention to this before I sing: there’s not a musical sound from me that’s worth singing, OR there’s not an observation of mine that’s worth paying attention to.
Don Pedro. . . . Pay attention to your singing: which is truly worth nothing, OR sing tunes, for heaven’s sake: and nothing else, OR pay attention to musical tones and how you produce them.
Don Pedro can also mean that Balthazar’s singing is really for trivial pleasure and thus too insignificant to require apologies or disclaimers. And, of course, other possibilities exist.
The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) offers noth as a sixteenth-century variant spelling of note, presumably convertible to the present participle, nothing. Conversely, a variant spelling of nothing in the fourteenth through sixteenth centuries was notyng. Many English dialects even now obscure pronunciation differences between t and th, leaving nutting, nothing, and noting as homophones. Scene by scene throughout the play, Shakespeare dramatizes one or more of the OED’s denotations of both noting and nothing, rendering the title a multi-level pun.
For example, a basic meaning for noting occurs in the first scene of Much Ado about Nothing, “to observe . . . carefully; to give heed or attention to; to notice closely” (OED):
Claudio. Benedick, didst thou note the daughter of Signior Leonato?
Benedick. I noted her not, but I look’d on her”
Benedick’s quibble confirms a distinction between merely “looking at” and “noticing closely.”
Surreptitiously observing (spying or eavesdropping) further exemplifies this meaning. In act 1, scene 2, Antonio tells Leonato that a servant reported overhearing Claudio and Don Pedro in the orchard discussing Hero and agreeing that Don Pedro should woo for Claudio. In scene 3, enter the villains. Borachio also reports noting Claudio and Don Pedro discussing the surrogate wooing, and Don John welcomes the chance to trouble Claudio. Thus, during the masque of act 2, scene 1, when Don Pedro woos and wins Hero for Claudio, Don John notes Claudio then approaches him as though he were Benedick to falsely note (“denote or signify”) that Don Pedro loves Hero for himself. Two other meanings of nothing also enter the equation: nothing as “the absence of good,” i.e., villainy, and nothing as “that which is nonexistent,” a fabrication. Thus, whatever ado ensues as a result of Don John’s lie is indeed about nothing—not triviality, but untruth and wickedness.
In act 2, scene 2, noting means “to indicate by pointing.” Borachio volunteers to thwart the marriage between Claudio and Hero by setting up a situation which can be noted (“pointed out”) by Don John and noted (“observed”) by Don Pedro and Claudio. To furnish “proof,” Borachio will present himself at Hero’s window with Margaret, Hero’s “waiting-gentlewoman” (2.2.13 14). The villainous connotations of nothing again are relevant.
Later in the play, the musical puns cited earlier introduce parallel eavesdropping traps for Benedick and Beatrice. As Benedick evaluates what he has noted (“overheard”), he accepts it as true because “the conference was sadly borne; they have the truth of this from Hero; they seem to pity the lady” (2.3.220 223). Beatrice, overhearing (noting) similar observations in act 3, scene 1, reaches the same conclusions about their reliability.
Beginning the third entrapment scene, Claudio and Don Pedro tease Benedick about his notes of love, in the OED sense of “a distinguishing feature, or sign”:
Claudio. If he be not in love with some woman, there is no believing old signs:
[he]brushes his hat o’ mornings. . . .
Don Pedro. Hath any man seen him at the barber’s? . . .
Leonato. Indeed, he looks younger than he did, by the loss of a beard.
Don Pedro. . . . [He] rubs himself with civet. . . . The greatest note of it is his melancholy.
Don John enters to enjoin Claudio and Don Pedro to note (“watch”) outside Hero’s window “even the night before her wedding-day” (3.2.113 14). If he notes (“sees”) any reason not to marry her, Claudio vows, “to-morrow in the congregation, where I should wed, there will I shame her.” “As I woo’d for thee to obtain her,” adds Don Pedro, “I will join with thee to disgrace her (3.2.123 27; italics added). The OED further defines noting as “to mark or brand with some disgrace or defect; to stigmatize.”
The next scene introduces the watch, those incomparable nincompoops, discussing their responsibilities as keepers of the peace, namely noting (“taking note of”) events and noting (“taking notes about”) them:
Dogberry. This is your charge:—you are to bid any man stand, in the prince’s name.
Second Watchman. How if [he] will not stand?
Dogberry. Why, then, take no note of him, but let him go; . . . and thank God you are rid of a knave.
(3.3.25 30; italics added)
Dogberry and Verges then note Borachio boasting to Conrade about his remuneration for the rendezvous with Margaret which was noted by Don Pedro and Claudio as sufficient proof to note Hero as unchaste. Shakespeare cleverly placed this scene before the shaming of Hero, so the audience never doubts her innocence.
Next, Dogberry and Verges intercept Leonato on the way to church with their news, but Leonato tells them to examine the prisoners without him. Legal uses of note include “abstracts, briefs, records of facts, annotation, and setting down in writing” (OED). Dogberry and Verges provide much ado about the process and content of noting the villains in the name of jurisprudence.
Act 4, scene 1 presents the public shaming (noting) of Hero. Nothing reflects the villainy of Don John, the “thing of no worth” that Hero has apparently become, the void behind the accusation, the ignorance of Hero, and her non-existence or death. In scene 2, the examination of Borachio and Conrade, Dogberry evokes two meanings of note: “to set down in writing,” as he exhorts his recorder ten times in a scene of only eighty-seven lines to “write [something] down”; and “to mark or brand with some disgrace or defect,” as he entreats the Sexton to “write [him] down an ass.”
After the supposed death of Hero, Don Pedro claims, “On my honor she was charg’d with nothing / But what was true, and very full of proof” (5.1.104 105). Benedick notes Claudio a villain and challenges him. The watch bring Borachio, who confesses, “What your wisdoms could not discover (note), these shallow fools have brought to light (noted), who in the night overheard (noted) me confessing (noting) to this man. . . . I desire nothing but the reward of a villain” (5.1.232 43 passim). Leonato then applies note and two of its synonyms to the perpetrators of the slander:
The final three scenes feature song, dance, “babbling rhyme” (5.2.39), “solemn hymn” (5.3.11), and “halting sonnet” (5.4.87)--all notes of one kind or other. On a final note, Claudio and Hero produce self-incriminating notes of love from Benedick and Beatrice, respectively “written in his hand” and “writ in my cousin’s hand” (5.4.86 and 89).
Obviously, Shakespeare didn’t sit down with the OED and concoct a scene for every conceivable meaning of the ambiguous words noting and nothing. On the other hand, so much convergence on these words and their synonyms precludes mere coincidence. Shakespeare recognized and reveled in the possibilities of the expanding English language of Renaissance England, and quibbles and equivocations rank among his indulgences. Much Ado about Nothing? I think so.