By Michael Flachmann
The title of Shakespeare's Much Ado about Nothing (1598) is clearly ironic, since the script deals with such significant topics as a young bride-to-be falsely accused of infidelity, her apparent death, and her joyful resurrection, all of which are coupled with an incendiary romance between two strong-willed individuals who are convinced, against their own sexual appetites, that they love each other. Typical of such other “mature comedies” as The Merchant of Venice (1597), As You Like It (1598), and Twelfth Night (1600), Much Ado about Nothing betrays at every turn the complexity in style, form, and content that audiences have come to expect from the author's later comedies, thereby deepening our enjoyment when we watch a good production of the play. Unlike such earlier efforts as the delightful if somewhat monochromatic The Two Gentlemen of Verona and Love's Labor's Lost, Much Ado about Nothing gives viewers more for their entertainment dollar than a few belly laughs and some interesting plot developments, because it is “comic” in a much more profound sense.
Not surprisingly, the intricacy of the script is signaled as early as the title’s pun on the word “nothing,” which was pronounced much like “noting” during the Renaissance, thereby conjuring up all the images of slander, overhearing, gossip, innuendo, musical notation, and sexuality that structure the play and give meaning to its plot. As anyone who has ever been the subject of gossip can attest, it is the “notings” that prompt all the “ado”: For example, Antonio's servants mistakenly report that Don Pedro loves Hero (1.2); Borachio reveals to Don John that she is actually beloved by Claudio (1.3), who later hears from Don John that the Prince is trying to steal her away from him (2.1); Benedick and Beatrice both overhear their friends discussing their alleged love for each other (2.3 and 3.1); Claudio is deluded by Margaret's impersonation of Hero on the night before his wedding (3.2); and the Watch overhear Borachio confess his villainy to Conrad (3.3), which leads to Hero's redemption and the resultant happy ending.
The play's witty and ironic plot construction is supported by a depth in characterization seldom seen in Shakespeare's comedies. If the old cliché is true that tragedies rely on character development while comedies are more plot-driven, the best scripts, regardless of genre, provide a mixture of both extremes. Such is certainly the case in Much Ado about Nothing, where the conventional Petrarchan relationship between Hero and Claudio is set into stark contrast by the incredibly human, volatile, and endearing love affair between Beatrice and Benedick, which teaches us that honest (if sometimes erratic) affection will always outshine idealized love. Much like such blockbuster 1930s Hollywood romantic comedies as Top Hat, His Gal Friday, and The Thin Man featuring Fred Astaire, Ginger Rogers, Cary Grant, Katherine Hepburn, and other legendary actors, the on-again, off-again love affair between Beatrice and Benedick sizzles with sexual energy, wit combat, and unrequited passion. These are real characters grappling with real amorous problems in the fictional context of a Shakespearean script, which makes them au courant for a post-modern world filled with sexual angst. As such, they easily transport the play into the twenty-first century, where it will always intrigue contemporary audiences.
Another index of authorial sophistication in the play is the complexity of its themes, which range over a wide array of powerful and allusive topics. Chief among these is the story of the maiden falsely accused, which leads to the motif of death and rebirth featured in this play and in such transcendent late romances as Pericles, The Winter's Tale, and Cymbeline. Similarly, Shakespeare's use of the movement from real war to amorous war invokes the Renaissance motif of the miles amores ("soldier of love"), through which Claudio, like his later counterparts Othello and Antony, demonstrates the oxymoronic impossibility of being a lover and a soldier at the same time. Additional themes and images include the growing realism of Shakespeare's villains (Don John as a precursor to Iago and Edmund), the use of sports and game-playing as dramatic metaphors for love and the struggle for power, the animosity between brothers (cf. As You Like It and King Lear), the importance of language (wherein Dogberry's malapropisms serve as a parody of the linguistic expertise swirling around him), and the skillful and didactic use of dramatic irony, in which only the audience knows the complete reality of the play at any given moment.
Even the staging of Much Ado about Nothing profits from the play’s maturity in conception and design. The two “discovery” scenes in which first Benedick (2.3) and then Beatrice (3.1) are tricked into falling love, for example, require incredible ingenuity on the part of the director and actors in finding spaces on stage in which the lovers can hide as they overhear the conspirators’ dialog. In addition, each of the two sequential gulling episodes must be different enough from the other that viewers don't get bored watching these “mirror” scenes. Beyond such formidable challenges, theatrical companies must find ways to encourage their audiences to forgive Claudio, who as one of Shakespeare's first seriously flawed young lovers must end the play worthy of the second chance given him by Hero. And finally, the script provides theatrical companies with brilliant dramaturgical treasures like Beatrice's “Kill Claudio” in 4.1.288, where the author deftly fuses love and hate into a single, breathless “beat change.”
In the final analysis, Much Ado about Nothing is a superb example of Shakespeare's mature comic style, bringing together, as it does, a complex plot, spectacular depth in characterization, a number of intellectually engaging themes and images, and staging possibilities that make extensive use of theatrical resources and audience imagination. Perhaps the play's greatest and most unexpected strength, however, is the way it employs the pure, simple, homespun virtues of the humble Dogberry and his Watch to uncover the diabolical plotting of Don John and his henchmen, which would surely have warmed the hearts of spectators during the Renaissance like it does today. As is so often the case in
Shakespeare, the working-class characters, rather than the aristocrats, are the moral and ethical center of the play. For a comedy with such charming surprises, perilous circumstances, thematic intensity, romantic realism, and abundant laughter, surely Much Ado about Something would be a more appropriate title!
Author's Note: Some insights in this article are indebted to the Much Ado about Nothing introduction in one of my recent books, Shakespeare: From Page to Stage (Pearson Publishing Company, 2007).