With Much Ado about Nothing, Beatrice joins Rosalind, Viola, and Portia in Shakespeare’s gallery of delightful and intelligent women. The epitome of Shakespeare’s comic genius is evident as we watch the play of wit between a sparkling and clever woman and a man who is fascinated by her mind no less than by her physical charms. Beatrice and Benedick must be ranked among Shakespeare’s most dazzling personages, and almost before we know it we are caught up in their merry war. The subject matter of their game is a distaste for institutionalized romantic love leading to marriage.
While Beatrice and Benedick immediately capture and hold our attention, and while without them the play would be colorless, two other plots intertwine in this story that is filled with gaiety and concerned with deception, disguise, and the psychology of lovers.
The serious part of Much Ado about Nothing, the ill-starred love story of Hero and Claudio, barely escapes tragedy as Claudio is tricked by the evil Don John into believing that he sees Hero conducting an amorous intrigue. This plot is founded partially on Orlando Furioso, an Italian epic poem, and partly on an old Italian tale by Bandello of a slandered lady deserted by her lover and at last reunited with him. As usual, Shakespeare handled his sources with complete freedom.
In the third plot action, and at the opposite extreme from the mercurial lovers, Shakespeare has enriched the play with some of his most memorable low comedy characters: the thickheaded constable Dogberry and his inept crew of watchmen. Dogberry murders the language in a manner reminiscent of Bottom, and he gives outrageous instructions to the “most senseless and fit” men who make up his watch. In his finest hour Dogberry cries, “O that I had been writ down an ass!” It is beautifully ironic that Dogberry and his fellow simpletons should be the ones to unravel Don John’s treachery. Evidence exists that the original role of Dogberry was created for Will Kempe, a short, fat comedian who was one of Shakespeare’s “fellows” in the Lord Chamberlain’s Men, a leading acting company in England at the time.
Despite potentially tragic elements in the second plot of the play, Beatrice and Benedick maintain lightness and gaiety. We never believe for an instant that the outcome of even the serious scenes will be anything but happy, and, assured that no misfortune is going to happen to anyone, we willingly abandon ourselves to the merry duel and comic episodes.
Two Elizabethan conventions must be accepted in order to appreciate this play. The first is the way the characters fall instantaneously in love. One glance, one flutter of the eyelashes and we hear the wedding bells ringing. After all, an Elizabethan might say, once you know it’s true love, why have a long engagement? And they don’t—although both Claudio and Benedick establish their lady loves’ financial status before taking the plunge into matrimony. This is the second convention: a lady’s estate was as much a part of her as the color of her hair.
We can only wonder what Shakespeare intended with a play he chose to call Much Ado about Nothing. Did he really think that little of it? Or was there commercial pressure to turn out an evening of romance and laughs? We will likely never know. What we do know is that the play was written at a period in Shakespeare’s career when he had already achieved great success as a playwright. Behind him were many successful comedies and the highly successful two parts of Henry IV. Much Ado about Nothing reflects the maturity and sureness of touch that had come to Shakespeare with his increasing development of craft as a dramatist, and the play has been continuingly popular. For nearly 400 years an appearance of Beatrice and Benedick has packed the house.