Much Ado About Nothing

Much Ado About Nothing
Facsimile of the title page of the quarto version of Much adoe about Nothing

Much Ado About Nothing is a comedy written by William Shakespeare about two pairs of lovers, Benedick and Beatrice, and Claudio and Hero.

Benedick and Beatrice are engaged in a "merry war"; they both talk a mile a minute and proclaim their scorn for love, marriage, and each other. In contrast, Claudio and Hero are sweet young people who are rendered practically speechless by their love for one another. By means of "noting" (which sounds the same as "nothing," and which is gossip, rumour, and overhearing), Benedick and Beatrice are tricked into confessing their love for each other, and Claudio is tricked into rejecting Hero at the altar. However, Dogberry, a Constable who is a master of malapropisms, discovers the evil trickery of the villain, the bastard Don John. In the end, Don John is captured and everyone else joins in a dance celebrating the marriages of the two couples.


Date and text

The earliest printed text states that Much Ado About Nothing was "sundry times publicly acted" prior to 1600 and it is likely that the play made its debut in the autumn or winter of 1598–1599.[1] The earliest recorded performances are two that were given at Court in the winter of 1612–13, during the festivities preceding the marriage of Princess Elizabeth with Frederick V, Elector Palatine (14 February 1613). The play was published in quarto in 1600 by the stationers Andrew Wise and William Aspley. This was the only edition prior to the First Folio in 1623.


The play is one of the few in the Shakespeare canon where the majority of the text is written in prose.[2] The substantial verse sections, nevertheless, are used both to achieve courteous decorum, on the one hand, and impulsive energies, on the other.[3]


Stories of lovers deceived into believing each other false were common currency in northern Italy in the sixteenth century. Shakespeare's immediate source could have been one of the Novelle ("Tales") by Matteo Bandello of Mantua, dealing with the tribulations of Sir Timbreo and his betrothed Fenice in Messina after King Piero's defeat of Charles of Anjou, perhaps through the translation into French by François de Belleforest.[4] Another version featuring lovers Ariodante and Ginevra, with the servant Dalinda impersonating Ginevra on the balcony, appears in Book V of Orlando Furioso by Ludovico Ariosto, published in an English translation in 1591.[5] The character of Benedick too has a counterpart in a commentary upon marriage in Orlando Furioso,[6] but the witty wooing of Beatrice and Benedick is original.[4]


Much Ado About Nothing is set in Messina, a port on the island of Sicily, which is next to the toe of Italy. Sicily was ruled by Aragon at the time the play was set.[7] The action of the play takes place mainly at the home and on the grounds of Leonato's Estate.


  • Don Pedro, Prince of Aragon: A kind, good Prince who helps Claudio win Hero. It was very common for the superiors of that time to find suitable wives for their men. He later helps Claudio disgrace Hero when he believes that she is unfaithful and he also tricks Benedick and Beatrice to fall in love.
  • Benedick, of Padua; a lord, companion of Don Pedro: A sarcastic, witty bachelor who swears he will never marry, he later falls in love with Beatrice when he is tricked into believing that she loves him. He is said to be very good in battle and there is hinting at a past relationship with Beatrice, though they do nothing but fight when the story opens.
  • Claudio, of Florence; a count, companion of Don Pedro
  • Balthasar, attendant on Don Pedro, a singer: Though Don Pedro praises his singing, Benedick calls him a "cat who sounds as if someone is killing it."
  • Don John, "the Bastard Prince," brother of Don Pedro and the main villain: He is surly and bitter, stirring up trouble with Claudio, Hero, and everyone he can. He is captured by the end of the play.
  • Borachio and Conrade, followers of Don John: They are the ones who actually initiate the plot to frame Hero as an adulteress. Borachio, who is in a relationship with Margaret, gets her into Hero's clothes and then kisses her on the balcony window, in full sight of Don John, Don Pedro, and Claudio.
  • Leonato, governor of Messina: He is ready to kill Hero himself when he believes she has dishonored him, but when he starts to believe her innocence, is ready to turn and kill Claudio instead.
  • Hero, Leonato's daughter: Beautiful, sweet, gentle, and demure, she is wrongfully accused of unfaithfulness and publicly humiliated on her wedding day. Wounded by Claudio's anger and her love for him, she swoons, and later pretends to be dead to bring remorse to her beloved. She marries Claudio in the end.
  • Beatrice, niece of Leonato, orphan: Hero's witty, older cousin, she attacks Benedick verbally, though she mentions once that "I wish he would have boarded me," insinuating that they had a past relationship. She swears never to marry, but after being tricked into believing that Benedick loves her, falls in love with him. She asks him to avenge Hero's dishonor and he reluctantly agrees to challenge Claudio to a duel.
  • Antonio, an old man, brother of Leonato: Offers to fight Claudio after Hero is pronounced "dead."
  • Margaret, waiting-gentlewoman attendant on Hero: Borachio's lover, she is tricked into wearing Hero's clothes and unwittingly taken for her mistress.
  • Ursula, waiting-gentlewoman attendant on Hero
  • Friar Francis, a priest: The priest who believes in Hero's innocence and proposes the plot to pretend that she is dead.
  • Dogberry, the constable in charge of Messina's night watch: An idiot with a too-large sense of self-importance, he continuously botches everything he tries to do but is indirectly responsible for Hero's public redemption from disgrace.
  • Verges, the Headborough, Dogberry’s partner
  • A Sexton, the judge of the trial of Borachio
  • The Watch, watchmen of Messina
  • A Boy, serving Benedick
  • Attendants and messengers
  • Innogen, a ghost character included in early editions as Leonato's wife


Facsimile of the first page of Much Ado About Nothing from the First Folio, published in 1623

At Messina, a messenger brings news that Don Pedro, a Spanish prince from Aragon, and his officers, Claudio and Benedick, have returned from a successful battle. Leonato, the governor of Messina, welcomes the messenger and announces that Don Pedro and his men will stay for a month. Beatrice, Leonato's niece, asks the messenger about Benedick, and makes sarcastic remarks about his ineptitude as a soldier. Leonato explains that "There is a kind of merry war betwixt Signior Benedick and her."[8]

Beatrice and Benedick, longtime adversaries, carry on their arguments. Claudio’s feelings for Hero, Leonato's only daughter, are rekindled upon seeing her, and Claudio soon announces to Benedick his intention to court her. Benedick tries to dissuade his friend but is unsuccessful in the face of Don Pedro’s encouragement. While Benedick teases Claudio, Benedick swears that he will never get married. Don Pedro laughs at him and tells him that when he has found the right person he shall get married.

A masquerade ball is planned in celebration, giving a disguised Don Pedro the opportunity to woo Hero on Claudio’s behalf. Don John uses this situation to get revenge on his brother Don Pedro by telling young Claudio that Don Pedro is wooing Hero for himself. Claudio becomes furious at Don Pedro and confronts him. The misunderstanding is quickly resolved and Claudio wins Hero's hand in marriage.

Don Pedro and his men, bored at the prospect of waiting a week for the wedding, harbour a plan to matchmake between Beatrice and Benedick. The men led by Don Pedro proclaim Beatrice’s love for Benedick while knowing he is eavesdropping on their conversation. The women led by Hero do the same to Beatrice. Struck by the fact that they are apparently thought to be too proud to love each other, Beatrice and Benedick, neither willing to bear the reputation of pride, each decides to requite the love of the other.

Meanwhile Don John, 'The Bastard' (Don Pedro's illegitimate brother), is a malcontent who plots to ruin Claudio and Hero’s wedding by casting aspersions upon Hero’s character. His follower Borachio courts Margaret, Hero's chambermaid calling her "Hero", at Hero’s open bedroom window while Don John leads Don Pedro and Claudio to spy below. The latter mistaking Margaret for Hero are convinced of Hero's infidelity.

The next day during the wedding, Claudio refuses to marry Hero. He and Don Pedro humiliate Hero publicly before a stunned congregation and Margaret, who is attending the wedding, does not speak up in Hero's defence. The two leave, leaving the rest in shock. Hero, who has fainted, revives after Don Pedro and Claudio leave, only to be reprimanded by her father. The presiding Friar interrupts, believing Hero to be innocent and convinces the family to fake Hero's death in order to extract the truth and Claudio’s remorse. Prompted by the day's harrowing events, Benedick and Beatrice confess their love for each other. Beatrice then asks Benedick to slay Claudio as proof of her devotion, since he has slandered her kinswoman. Benedick is horrified and denies her request. Later, however, he breaks with Claudio and challenges him for insulting Hero.

Leonato and Antonio, Hero's uncle, subsequently blame Don Pedro and Claudio for Hero’s death and challenge Claudio to duels. Benedick, prompted by Beatrice, does the same.

Luckily, on the night of Don John's treachery the local Watch has apprehended Borachio and his ally Conrade. Despite the Watch's comic ineptness (headed by constable Dogberry, a master of malapropisms), they have overheard the duo discussing their evil plans. The Watch arrest them and eventually obtain the villains' confession, informing Leonato of Hero's innocence. Though Don John has fled the city a force is sent to capture him. Claudio, though maintaining he made an honest mistake, is repentant; he agrees to not only post a proper epitaph for Hero but to marry a substitute, Hero's cousin (not Beatrice) in her place.

During Claudio’s second wedding as the dancers enter, the "cousin" is unmasked as Hero to a most surprised and gratified Claudio. An impromptu dance is announced. Beatrice and Benedick, prompted by their friends’ interference finally confess their love for each other to the group at large. As the play draws to a close a messenger arrives with news of Don John’s capture – but his punishment is postponed another day so that the couples can enjoy their new-found happiness.

Analysis and criticism

Themes and motifs

Opposite sex

Benedick and Beatrice quickly became the main interest of the play; Charles I even wrote 'Benedick and Beatrice' beside the title of the play in his copy of the Second Folio.[9] The provocative treatment of gender is central to the play and should be considered in its Renaissance context. While this was reflected and emphasised in certain plays of the period, it was also challenged.[10] Amussen[11] notes that the destabilising of traditional gender clichés appears to have inflamed anxieties about the erosion of social order. It seems that comic drama could be a means of calming such anxieties. Ironically, we can see through the play's popularity that this only increased people's interest in such behaviour. Benedick wittily gives voice to male anxieties about women's "sharp tongues and proneness to sexual lightness".[10] In the patriarchal society of the play, the men's loyalties were governed by conventional codes of honour and camaraderie and a sense of superiority to women.[10] Assumptions that women are by nature prone to inconstancy are shown in the repeated jokes on cuckoldry and partly explain Claudio's readiness to believe the slur against Hero. This stereotype is turned on its head in Balthasar's song, which shows men to be the deceitful and inconstant sex that women must suffer.


A theme in Shakespeare is cuckoldry or the infidelity of a wife. Several of the characters seem to be obsessed by the idea that a man has no way to know if his wife is faithful and therefore women can take full advantage of that fact. Don John plays upon Claudio’s pride and fear of cuckoldry, which leads to the disastrous first wedding scene. Because of their mistrust of female sexuality, many of the males easily believe that Hero is impure and even her father readily condemns her with very little proof. This motif runs through the play, often in references to horns, a symbol of cuckoldry.


In Much Ado About Nothing, there are many examples of deception and self-deception. The games and tricks played on people often have the best intentions—to make people fall in love, to help someone get what they want, or to make someone realise their mistake. However, not all are meant well, such as when Don John convinces Claudio that Don Pedro wants Hero for himself, or when Borachio meets 'Hero' (who is actually Margaret, pretending to be Hero) in Hero's bedroom window.

Mistaken identity/Masks

People are constantly pretending to be others or being mistaken for other people. The most famous example is Margaret who is mistaken for Hero, which leads to Hero's public disgrace. However, during a festival in which everyone is masked, Beatrice rants about Benedick to a masked man who turns out to be Benedick himself. During the same celebration, Don Pedro, masked, pretends to be Claudio and courts Hero for him. After Hero is announced "dead," Leonato orders Claudio to marry his "niece," who is actually Hero in disguise.


Another motif is the play on the words nothing and noting, which in Shakespeare’s day were homophones.[12] Taken literally, the title implies that a great fuss ("much ado") is made of something which is insignificant ("nothing"), such as the unfounded claims of Hero’s infidelity. The title could also be understood as Much Ado About Noting. Much of the action is in interest in and critique of others, written messages, spying, and eavesdropping. This is mentioned several times, particularly concerning "seeming", "fashion", and outward impressions. Nothing is a double entendre, "an O-thing" (or "n othing" or "no thing") was Elizabethan slang for "vagina", evidently derived from the pun of a woman having "nothing" between her legs.[13][4]

Examples of noting as noticing occur in the following instances: (1.1.131–132)

Claudio: Benedick, didst thou note the daughter of Signor Leonato?
Benedick: I noted her not, but I looked on her.

and (4.1.154–157).

Friar: Hear me a little,

For I have only been silent so long
And given way unto this course of fortune

By noting of the lady.

At (3.3.102–104), Borachio indicates that a man’s clothing doesn’t indicate his character:

Borachio: Thou knowest that the fashion of a doublet, or a hat, or a cloak is nothing to a man.

A triple play on words in which noting signifies noticing, musical notes and nothing occurs at (2.3.47–52):

Don Pedro: Nay pray thee, come;

Or if thou wilt hold longer argument,
Do it in notes.
Balthasar: Note this before my notes:
There’s not a note of mine that’s worth the noting.
Don Pedro: Why, these are very crotchets that he speaks –

Note notes, forsooth, and nothing!

Don Pedro’s last line can be understood to mean, "Pay attention to your music and nothing else!" The complex layers of meaning include a pun on "crotchets," which can mean both "quarter notes" (in music) and whimsical notions.

The following are puns on notes as messages: (2.1.174–176),

Claudio: I pray you leave me.
Benedick: Ho, now you strike like the blind man – ‘twas the boy that stole your meat, and you’ll beat the post.

in which Benedick plays on the word post as a pole and as mail delivery in a joke reminiscent of Shakespeare’s earlier advice "Don’t shoot the messenger"; and (2.3.138–142)

Claudio: Now you talk of a sheet of paper, I remember a pretty jest your daughter told us of.
Leonato: O, when she had writ it and was reading it over, she found Benedick and Beatrice between the sheet?

in which Leonato makes a sexual innuendo concerning sheet as a sheet of paper (on which Beatrice’s love note to Benedick is to have been written) and a bedsheet.

Performance history

The play was very popular in its early decades, as it would be later: in a poem published in 1640, Leonard Digges wrote "...let but Beatrice / And Benedick be seen, lo in a trice / The Cockpit galleries, boxes, all are full."

After the theatres re-opened during the Restoration, Sir William Davenant staged The Law Against Lovers (1662), which inserted Beatrice and Benedick into an adaptation of Measure for Measure. Another adaptation, The Universal Passion, combined Much Ado with a play by Molière (1737). Shakespeare's text had been revived by John Rich at Lincoln's Inn Fields (1721). David Garrick first played Benedick in 1748 and continued to play him until 1776.[14]

The great nineteenth century stage team Henry Irving and Ellen Terry counted Benedick and Beatrice as their greatest triumph and Charles Kemble also had a great success as Benedick. John Gielgud made Benedick one of his signature roles between 1931 and 1959, playing the part opposite the Beatrice of Diana Wynyard, Peggy Ashcroft and Margaret Leighton. The longest running Broadway production is A. J. Antoon's 1972 staging starring Sam Waterston, Kathleen Widdoes and Barnard Hughes, and Derek Jacobi won a Tony Award for playing Benedick in 1984. Jacobi had also played Benedick in the Royal Shakespeare Company's highly-praised 1982 production. Director Terry Hands produced the play on a stage-length mirror, against an unchanging backdrop of painted trees. Sinéad Cusack played Beatrice.

On stage


There have been several notable adaptations of Much Ado About Nothing.


There have been several screen adaptations of Much Ado About Nothing, and almost all of them have been made for television. In 2005 the BBC adapted the story by setting it in the modern-day studios of Wessex Tonight, a fictional regional news programme, as part of the ShakespeaRe-Told season, with Damian Lewis, Sarah Parish, and Billie Piper.


The first cinematic version in English may have been the 1913 silent film directed by Phillips Smalley.

The first sound version in English released to cinemas was the highly acclaimed 1993 film by Kenneth Branagh. It starred Branagh as Benedik, Emma Thompson as Beatrice, Denzel Washington as Don Pedro, Keanu Reeves as Don John, Richard Briers as Leonato, Michael Keaton as Dogberry, Robert Sean Leonard as Claudio, Imelda Staunton as Maragaret, and Kate Beckinsale in her film debut as Hero.

The 2001 Hindi film Dil Chahta Hai is a loose adaptation of the play.[17]

In October 2011, Joss Whedon announced a film called Much Ado About Nothing.[18]. The cast includes Amy Acker as Beatrice, Alexis Denisof as Benedick, Nathan Fillion as Dogberry, Clark Gregg as Leonato, Reed Diamond as Don Pedro, Fran Kranz as Claudio, Sean Maher as Don John, Spencer Treat Clark as Borachio, Riki Lindhome as Conrade, Ashley Johnson as Margaret, Tom Lenk as Verges, Romy Rosemont as the Sexton, and an unknown, Jillian Morgese, as Hero.


The operas Béatrice et Bénédict (1862) by Hector Berlioz and Much Ado About Nothing by Sir Charles Villiers Stanford (1901) are based upon this play.[19]

Recently the Klingon Language Institute translated Much Ado About Nothing into Klingon, similar to The Klingon Hamlet.

Another adaptation is the 1973 New York Shakespeare Festival production by Joseph Papp, shot on videotape and released on VHS and DVD, that presents more of the text than Kenneth Branagh's version. The Papp production stars Sam Waterston, Kathleen Widdoes and Barnard Hughes.

In 2006 the American Music Theatre Project produced The Boys Are Coming Home,[20] a musical adaptation by Berni Stapleton and Leslie Arden that sets Much Ado About Nothing in World War II America.


  1. ^ See textual notes to Much Ado About Nothing in The Norton Shakespeare (W. W. Norton & Company, 1997 ISBN 0-393-97087-6) p. 1387
  2. ^
  3. ^ A. R. Hunphreys (editor) (1981). Much Ado About Nothing. Arden Edition. 
  4. ^ a b c Rasmussen, Eric; Bate, Jonathan (2007). "Much Ado About Nothing". The RSC Shakespeare: the complete works. New York: Macmillan. p. 257. ISBN 0-230-00350-8. 
  5. ^ Evans, G. Blakemore (1997). "Much Ado about Nothing". The Riverside Shakespeare. Boston: Houghton Mifflin. p. 361. ISBN 0-395-85822-4. 
  6. ^ Dusinberre, Juliet (1998). "Much Ado About Lying". In Marrapodi, Michele. The Italian world of English Renaissance drama: cultural exchange and intertextuality. Newark: University of Delaware Press. p. 244. ISBN 0-87413-638-5. 
  7. ^ Bate, Jonathan (2008). Soul of the Age: the Life, Mind and World of William Shakespeare. London: Viking. p. 305. ISBN 978-0-670-91482-1. 
  8. ^ Much Ado About Nothing, Act 1, Scene 1, Lines 61–62.
  9. ^ G. Blakemore Evans, The Riverside Shakespeare, Houghton Mifflin, 1974; p. 327.
  10. ^ a b c McEachern, Much Ado About Nothing, Arden; 3rd edition, 2005.
  11. ^ Amussen, Ordered Society, Columbia University Press (15 April 1994).
  12. ^ See Stephen Greenblatt’s introduction to Much Ado about Nothing in The Norton Shakespeare (W. W. Norton & Company, 1997 ISBN 0-393-97087-6) at p. 1383.
  13. ^ See Gordon Williams A Glossary of Shakespeare's Sexual Language (Althone Press, 1997 ISBN 0-485-12130-1) at p. 219: "As Shakespeare's title ironically acknowledges, vagina and virginity are a nothing causing Much Ado."
  14. ^ F. E. Halliday, A Shakespeare Companion 1564–1964, Baltimore, Penguin, 1964; pp. 326–7.
  15. ^
  16. ^ "David Tennant and Catherine Tate interview for 'Much Ado About Nothing'". The Daily Telegraph. 10 May 2011. Retrieved 28 May 2011. 
  17. ^ Ramesh, Randeep (29 July 2006). "A matter of caste as Bollywood embraces the Bard". Guardian. Retrieved 5 April 2011. 
  18. ^ "Much Ado About Nothing". Retrieved 23 October 2011. 
  19. ^ Daly, Karina, Tom Walsh's Opera: A history of the Wexford Festival, 1951–2004, Four Courts, 2004. ISBN 1-85182-878-8
  20. ^ Simonson, Robert. "Cast Set for Gary Griffin-Directed The Boys Are Coming Home, at Northwestern's American Music Theatre Project". 28 May 2008.

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