Essays About The Tragedies In Much Ado About Nothing

Every director thinks they know what they are dealing with when they tackle Much Ado About Nothing, and every theatre critic too. Glance even casually across the reviews for Josie Rourke's current production at Wyndham's, with Catherine Tate and David Tennant, and Jeremy Herrin's rival version across the Thames at the Globe, with Eve Best and Charles Edwards, and one term will strike you again and again: romcom.

Alone among Shakespeare's comedies, Much Ado has had recognisable descendants in mainstream showbusiness from his time to ours. Sparring couples, their witticisms at each other's expense at first appearing to reveal mutual dislike but in time betraying themselves as symptoms of mutual attraction, became one of the clichés of romantic scriptwriting after William Davenant transposed Shakespeare's Beatrice and Benedick into his pioneering Restoration comedy The Law Against Lovers in 1662. Such apparently mismatched, wrangling pairs have remained a staple, from 18th-century drawing-room comedy (and its novelistic descendants, Pride and Prejudice among them), through comic opera (not least Berlioz's Béatrice et Bénédict, 1860-2), and thence, after the arrival of the cinema, to screwball comedy (think of Claudette Colbert and Clark Gable in It Happened One Night). Nobody since Shakespeare has written anything resembling this play's rivals among his mature comedies, As You Like It and Twelfth Night, plays whose events take place in poetic never-never worlds at no particular time and sometimes in no particular order. But Much Ado About Nothing looks at first glance like a tightly-plotted, well-made romantic comedy, closer to the work of Richard Curtis than to anything by the author of King Lear.

For good measure, it even features a team of inept local policemen who might as well be in a renaissance precursor to Dad's Army or The Thin Blue Line. Surely all you need to do with this play is cast a well-loved pair of stars as Beatrice and Benedick, work on some elaborate sight-gags for the scenes in which their respective friends arrange for each to overhear staged conversations about how much the other loves them, and sit back and count the box-office takings?

There's no denying, certainly, that the history of this play's great productions is usually recalled as a history of famous Benedicks and famous Beatrices, performers who have often flirted outrageously with their audiences' sense of how far these parts did and did not fit their offstage selves and indeed their offstage relationships. David Garrick, for instance, both the greatest actor and the most skilled self-publicist of the 18th century, chose this play for the first performances he gave in London on his return from honeymoon in 1748, inviting his fans to smile knowingly at his own supposedly rueful conversion from confirmed bachelor to "Benedick the married man".

Some Victorian actor-managers, such as Charles Kean and Charles Calvert, liked to hang out their clean linen in public by casting their own wives as Beatrice. Henry Irving and Ellen Terry, however, a compellingly waspish and intimate onstage couple in 1882, keep gossips guessing to this day as to whether they were ever lovers behind the scenes. Nobody in the know is likely to have suspected such a liaison between Peggy Ashcroft and John Gielgud, no matter how often they played Beatrice and Benedick (1931, 1950, 1955), but the onstage chemistry between his disdainful Benedick and her impish, tactless, unpredictably prim and passionate Beatrice was undeniable.

The best loved and most admired Benedick in living memory has probably been Sir Donald Sinden, cast opposite an alternately stern and vulnerable Judi Dench in John Barton's RSC production of 1976. His Benedick was on the verge of middle age: not a witty, dashing Mercutio duped into becoming Romeo but someone in imminent danger of turning into the self-satisfied, joke-repeating bore of the officers' mess. Sinden's years of experience in light comedy gave him the confidence to vary his virtuoso performance unpredictably from night to night, recklessly willing to play each audience as differently as might a stand-up comic.

Audiences remember how he would sometimes perform the whole of his soliloquy at the end of the second act – in which Benedick, tricked into believing Beatrice loves him, gradually abandons his former opposition to marriage – as though remonstrating with increasing vehemence with a single chosen spectator in the stalls. He would make a tremendous, emphatically nodding climax of the line "The world must be peopled", as though this were a clinching riposte with which to convince his obdurate opponent, and would then stomp triumphantly off – only to return a moment later, visibly calming himself, to offer the same spectator amends with a placatory, face-saving "When I said I would die a bachelor, I did not think I would live till I were married". Dench recalls finding Sinden so funny and so perpetually unexpected that she would sometimes be laughing too much to make her ensuing entrance.

Barton, rare among modern directors of Much Ado, was willing to trust Sinden and Dench to deliver their scenes' comedy with little help from the props department. Most of his successors have been less restrained, supplementing the respective gullings of Benedick and Beatrice with more and less desperate pieces of equipment for generating slapstick: a bush from which Roger Allam's cigar-puffing Benedick could send astonished, coughing smoke signals (Bill Alexander, RSC, 1990), that tedious deckchair (in Kenneth Branagh's 1993 film), a garden hose (Greg Doran, RSC, 2002), a wheelbarrow (Rourke's previous production, at the Sheffield Crucible in 2005), a swimming pool (Nick Hytner, NT, 2007), or, most unfunny of the lot, some decorators' stepladders, pulleys and white paint (in Rourke's current version at Wyndham's). These would-be comic devices, though, are always at risk of overbalancing the play, compelling designers to treat these scenes as its defining heart. It's remarkable how little Hytner's production actually gained, for instance, once Simon Russell Beale's Benedick had finally undergone his predictable drenching, from the presence of all that irrelevant water.

But the real trouble with the customary view that Much Ado About Nothing is just a cheerful romp about Beatrice and Benedick is that their superficially easy scenes supply only the subplot to a much darker and stranger play. Its throwaway title, for a start, conceals a nasty sexual pun; at stake in the main story is precisely the "nothing" which, according to the Elizabethan slang used by the likes of Hamlet, lies between a maid's legs. That maid is Hero, who is wooed by an older man, Don Pedro, on behalf of a younger, Claudio. Claudio, at first jealous of the intermediary he has himself employed, is then tricked into thinking Hero has been pursuing a clandestine relationship during their engagement, and at the altar he declares her to be a whore. She collapses unconscious, and her father, convinced of the accusation's truth, wishes she were dead. When her bridegroom-to-have-been is told that she is indeed dead he is unrepentant.

The play manages to contrive a miraculous, wonder-struck ending to this story in which the two nonetheless wind up married: but it still isn't a nice story, and it isn't obvious that any marriage so riddled with mutual distrust at its inception exactly constitutes a happy ending. While accepting that comedies end in weddings, so that Benedick and Beatrice are only struggling against the inevitable, Much Ado depicts a world in which marriage is fragile, arbitrary and potentially traumatic, and in which people are not so much free agents as the prisoners of their own self-images and of each other's unreliable opinions. To judge from his endless anxious jokes about cuckoldry, for instance (which many directors ruthlessly cut), Benedick has remained a bachelor to date largely because he is profoundly convinced that no woman is capable of fidelity and is deeply afraid of public disgrace. And to judge from the banter between Claudio and Don Pedro, soldiers fresh from victory, neither has ever wasted much time talking to girls, and when in doubt they would always trust a fellow-officer's word over that of a woman. If this is a comedy, it's one that is alarmingly close to Othello. Even the clownish policeman Dogberry reveals a tragic side when confronted with the awful truth that he is regarded as a fool, blurting indignantly that he is not a mere ass but "a fellow that hath had losses".

Directors have sometimes tried to hold the main plot and the subplot of Much Ado About Nothing together by swamping both in some overarching concept. In 2006, for instance, Marianne Elliott's RSC production set the play in a tango-infested version of prerevolutionary Cuba, where Tamsin Greig's mulish Beatrice seemed less to be reconciling herself to Joseph Millson's harmless Benedick than to be auditioning for Strictly Come Dancing. But do we really need to look that picturesquely far afield to imagine a society in which this play's central events might still matter, might still believably happen? Much Ado might look like a safe piece of entertainment designed to cater to stag and hen parties alike, but under the surface it is a play in which men and women may kill and die at a moment's notice for someone else's notion of honour, whether sexual or social. And honour killings are hardly the stuff of romcom.

Much Ado About Nothing is at Wyndham's Theatre, London WC2, until 3 September and The Globe, London SE1, until 1 October.

SOURCE: Humphreys, A. R., ed. Introduction to The Arden Shakespeare: Much Ado about Nothing, by William Shakespeare, pp. 1-84. London: Methuen, 1981.

[In the following excerpt, Humphreys surveys the principal literary sources for Shakespeare's Much Ado about Nothing.]



Stories of the lover deceived by a rival or enemy into believing his beloved false are widespread and of great antiquity. An analogue of the Claudio-Hero plot has been traced back to a fifth-century Greek romance by Chariton, Chaereas and Kallirrhoe. Seventeen Renaissance versions, narrative or dramatic, are recorded before Shakespeare's, in Spanish, Italian, French, German, and English. They include the fifteenth-century Spanish Tirant lo Blanch (Tirant the White) by Juan Martorell, which probably lies behind Ariosto's version in the fifth canto of Orlando Furioso (1516).1 Ariosto's lovers are named Ariodante and Genevra. His story, first translated into English and much elaborated in Peter Beverley's poem, The Historie of Ariodanto and Ieneura (c. 1566),2 was further translated by Sir John Harington as Orlando Furioso in English Heroical Verse (1591). From Ariosto, Spenser derived his own very different version, which ends in disaster instead of the lovers' reunion; it tells how Squire Phedon, deceived by his supposed friend Philemon into thinking his adored Claribell disloyal, falls into the intemperance of killing her (The Faerie Queene, 1590, II.4.xvi-xxxviii.)

Meanwhile Matteo Bandello, the Italian ecclesiastic, diplomat, and man of letters, treated the subject in his own way in the twenty-second story of La Prima Parte de le Novelle (1554), naming his lovers Sir Timbreo and Fenicia. A French translation, morally and rhetorically elaborated, appeared as the eighteenth tale of the third volume of François de Belleforest's Histoires Tragiques (1569).

Versions in English other than those mentioned comprise, possibly, a ‘matter of Panecia’ (i.e. Fenicia?) play performed by the Earl of Leicester's Men at Court on New Year's Day 1575 but no longer extant,3 and, more evidently, an Ariodante and Genevra (also not extant), done likewise at Court, on 12 February 1583, by Merchant Taylors' schoolboys under their humanist headmaster Richard Mulcaster.4 Other analogues or sources comprise George Whetstone's story of Rinaldo and Giletta, incorporating elements of Ariosto and Bandello in The Rocke of Regard (1576: see Appendix I.ii), and two plays, one—Victoria—in Latin (c. 1580-3) by Abraham Fraunce, the other—Fedele and Fortunio, The Two Italian Gentlemen—in English (1585) by one M. A. (Anthony Munday?).5 Both are versions of a highly reputed comedy, Il Fedele, by Luigi Pasaquaglio (1579). In this, the would-be seducer Fedele, unable to win his desired Vittoria (who, though married, is enamoured of his rival, Fortunio), traduces her to her husband Cornelio and arranges that Cornelio shall see a servant (in love with her maid, like Borachio with Margaret in Much Ado) enter the house and court a supposed Vittoria. Cornelio, gulled, plans to poison his wife, but by a trick she mollifies Fedele and escapes her fate. With many variations as to its intrigues the story was widely popular, varying in tone from farce or Plautine comedy to tragedy.


Ariosto, translated by Harington in 1591, tells how the brave Renaldo, ‘Of noble chivalrie the verie flowre’ (V. 82), arrives in Scotland and learns that the Scottish princess Genevra must die accused of unchastity unless a champion comes forward to defend her. Resolving to do so he makes for the court at St Andrews and on the way saves a woman from murderous assailants. She is Genevra's maid Dalinda and she tells him that the princess is innocent.

Dalinda has been in love with Polynesso, Duke of Albany, and he has often met her secretly in Genevra's room, ascending by a rope ladder; Polynesso, nevertheless, has aspired to marry Genevra herself. But she loved the noble Ariodante, and was equally loved. Polynesso's desire for Genevra turning to hatred, he plotted to destroy the lovers' hopes. Though posing as Ariodante's friend, he arranged that Dalinda (who had ‘no reason, nor no wit, / His shamefull drift (tho' open) to perceaue’; V. 26) should dress herself as her mistress and admit him by night; he then placed Ariodante and the latter's brother Lurcanio where they could see him enter Genevra's window. The deception succeeded. Horrified, Ariodante disappeared, intending to drown himself, though in fact (unknown to anyone) having jumped from a cliff he thought better of it, swam ashore, and remained incognito. Lurcanio accused Genevra of unchastity, and she has been doomed to death.

To remove the unwitting accomplice Dalinda, Polynesso then planned the murder from which Renaldo has saved her. The two travellers reach St Andrews and Renaldo prepares to fight for justice. He finds a strange knight already engaging the deluded but honourable accuser Lurcanio, and he declares that neither contender should lose his life, Genevra's unknown champion because he fights for the right, Lurcanio because he is the victim of deceit. The combat ceases. Renaldo then accuses Polynesso and in the ensuing fight he mortally wounds him. Polynesso dies confessing his guilt; the strange knight reveals himself as Ariodante and is joyfully reunited with Genevra (to protect whom, though still thinking her guilty, he has even opposed his brother); and Dalinda betakes herself to a nunnery.

The similarities to Shakespeare's plot (though they show considerable variation) amount to Polynesso's mortal jealousy (for reasons different from Don John's in the play); his love affair with the maid and the ladder ascent to the disguised girl impersonating her mistress (though the play transfers these operations to the subordinate Borachio); the maid's ignorance of her action's bearing; the court's belief (in the play only temporary) in the heroine's guilt; the defending champion's challenge to the accuser; and the happy outcome after peril.

The most obvious of the differences from Shakespeare's plot are Ariosto's courtly-romance level; his Scottish location and quite different personal names; his sense of tragic danger and murderous violence (far outgoing anything in the play); his villain's motives (foiled jealousy in love) and initiatives in the deception (instead of through an agent's instigation); his deceived lover's reported suicide and secret reappearance; his accusation urged not by the lover (as a kind of vengeance) but by the lover's brother (as an act of justice); his wholly different handling of Genevra's plight (as compared with Hero's) and of the circumstances of the challenge (in the poem the deluded compassionate Ariodante opposing his brother; in the play the deluded uncompassionate Claudio opposing the erstwhile friend Benedick) and the restoration of love; and the maid retiring to a nunnery (in the play, fully restored in social esteem). Shakespeare's particulars belong to a markedly different conception from Ariosto's.


Bandello's version is much racier, and far nearer to Shakespeare's. It tells how the knightly Sir Timbreo di Cardona, one of King Piero of Aragon's courtiers, and a valiant soldier while the King is capturing Sicily, falls in love during the victory celebrations in Messina with Fenicia, daughter of Messer Lionato de' Lionati, ‘a poor gentleman and not his equal’.6 Fenicia behaves so modestly that Sir Timbreo concludes that he can win her only by marriage (not at all his original plan). Her birth, he reflects, is lower than his but she is of good lineage, and through a friendly nobleman he gains her father's consent. The lovers rejoice and all Messina likewise, Lionato being highly regarded.

A rival, however, Sir Girondo Olerio Valenziano, has also fallen in love with Fenicia. Though basically honourable, and a friend of Sir Timbreo's, he resolves to break the betrothal, and he employs an agent, ‘more pleased with evil than with good’ (II.115), to tell Sir Timbreo that if he will hide in the garden he shall see Fenicia that very night playing him false. Suffering ‘bitter (and as it seemed to him just) anger’ (II.115), and ‘blinded with the veil of jealousy’ (II.116), Sir Timbreo does so, unaccompanied. The bedroom, in a remote part of the house, is entered by Sir Girondo's servant dressed as a gentleman. Sir Timbreo's love turns to ‘cruel hate’ (II.117), but bound by a vow of silence he leaves the scene without intervening.

Through the nobleman who arranged the betrothal he informs Lionato that Fenicia's misconduct has ended the engagement. Her whole family is shocked; Lionato, attributing the charge to Sir Timbreo's scorn at their reduced circumstances, vows his belief in her innocence and his trust that God will vindicate her. Fenicia herself, swooning, then recovering for a while, delivers a long and touching defence and prays that God will enlighten Sir Timbreo. She then lies apparently dead, but while awaiting burial she revives and her family take this as a sign that truth shall prevail. She is secretly sent to the country house of Lionato's brother and renamed Lucilla. The whole city grieves, obsequies are performed, and a sonnet is carved on her ‘tomb’.

Sir Timbreo now begins to waver. He reflects that the bedroom in question is too remote to be hers, and that the intruder could hardly have been visiting her. More remarkably, Sir Girondo, struck with remorse at Fenicia's fate, offers Sir Timbreo his dagger before her tomb, confesses what his jealousy had driven him to, and begs for death.

Vengeance on him will not restore Fenicia, however, and Sir Timbreo nobly declines it. Valuing friendship before love he announces that had he known of Sir Girondo's passion he would have yielded Fenicia to him, or, he suggests, had they discussed the matter, Sir Girondo might have done likewise. They will, at any rate, publicly vindicate her, and this they do. Lionato exacts a promise that Sir Timbreo will take no other bride than one chosen for him.

Time passes. Fenicia completes her seventeenth year and blooms so beautifully as to be unrecognizable as her former self. She has, moreover, a younger sister Belfiore, almost as lovely. Lionato tells Sir Timbreo that he has a bride for him, and a gay company (including Sir Girondo) makes for the country house, attends Mass, and meets Fenicia-Lucilla and Belfiore. Though Sir Timbreo is reminded of Fenicia, in her enhanced beauty he does not recognize her. They are married, and at the wedding banquet he poignantly expresses his grief for the ‘dead’ bride, his joy in the living one, and his adoration of both; whereupon Lionato announces that the two are one. Joyful reunion ensues, Girondo begs for and receives forgiveness and the hand of Belfiore, and King Piero receives the party on its return to Messina with festivities, bestowing dowries on the brides and wealth and honour on Lionato.

This story is much nearer Shakespeare's than is Ariosto's. From it he derives the festive Messina setting, the names of Pedro and Leonato, Claudio's recent war service (different though the war's cause and course), the courtship conducted through a noble intermediary, the deceiver's disguised agent, the lover's seemingly justified public rejection of the supposedly false bride, the religious assurance buoying up the heroine's friends, her swoon, revival, self-defence, and presumed death, the obsequies and epitaph, Claudio's penitence and submission, Leonato's offering of the ‘substitute’ bride under his brother's auspices, the acceptance and marriage of the veiled and unknown lady, the revelation, and the concluding festivities under princely patronage.

The differences from Shakespeare's plot are, nevertheless, notable enough to testify to Shakespeare's selective and modifying intelligence. First, Bandello's King Piero has no part in the plot save as the victor during whose sojourn in Messina the wooing takes place, with no intervention from him, and as the patron of the eventual marriage. Shakespeare, instead, has Don Pedro presiding throughout and negotiating the betrothal. The story gains a more courtly air. Then, Bandello gives Fenicia a mother, whom Shakespeare discards, though including ‘Innogen’ as Leonato's wife in the entry directions for I.i and II.i. Since in Bandello the mother figures almost solely when the ‘dead’ girl is being prepared for burial, and Shakespeare makes no use of this scene, her part doubtless just naturally lapsed. Then again, Sir Timbreo is a sensual youth prepared to seduce Fenicia and turning to marriage only when seduction proves impossible: Claudio, quite on the contrary, rejects Leonato's surmise that he may have ‘made defeat of [Hero's] virginity’ and vows, convincingly, that he has shown nothing but ‘Bashful sincerity and comely love’ (IV.i.47, 54). Throughout he is a shy wooer, whose willingness to have Don Pedro negotiate for him seems due as much to social diffidence (so different from his military courage) as to the expected diplomacies of well-bred courtship.

Then again, jealous though Sir Timbreo is on thinking himself deceived, he shows no sign of the jumpiness that the callow Claudio evinces when Don John, almost as his first action, tricks him into thinking that Don Pedro has wooed for himself. True, Claudio is not too blameworthy in this, for Leonato's circle—Leonato, Antonio, even Beatrice and Benedick—all think the same; this Act II minor gulling portends the Act III major one, where Claudio's credulity is again endorsed by the similar error of the experienced Don Pedro. Wanting to give plausibility to the later crisis, Shakespeare differs from Bandello in making Claudio's temperamental instability a strand in the web of deceptions and misunderstandings integral to the play's fabric.

The motives for deception, next, are much changed from Bandello's. Rivalry over Hero, though credible were the events real, would in the world of the play be unfitting to so gentle and sheltered a heroine, so no element of rival love enters: Hero is to be virginal even to the extent of having no other wooer. From the rumbles of the concluded war Shakespeare picks up a different motive for Don John's envy—military jealousy and rancour—and saves Hero from any taint of competition; Don John's animus is against the ‘young start-up’ whose glory it is to have overthrown him (I.iii.62-3) and against the princely brother who has forgiven his rebellion.

The deceiver, moreover, is not Bandello's brave (though temporarily erring) knight who has loyally fought in King Piero's war but a rebel against his lord and brother; he has the wicked nature of Ariosto's Polynesso embodied in the saturnine, melancholic, minor Machiavel readily recognizable as the source of malice, and dramatically popular on the Elizabethan stage. He is, moreover, a bastard, in conventional corroboration of this evil humour, though on the stage the fact, set down in an entry direction (I.i.87), is not mentioned until Benedick reveals it after the church scandal (IV.i.188).7 For Bandello's ‘friend’, treacherous only through love rivalry, Shakespeare substitutes a melodramatic rebel/foxy schemer, polarizes the two sides, sharpens the dramatic effect, and avoids the love-versus-friendship situation which had worked so dubiously in The Two Gentlemen of Verona and which in Bandello produces a Sir Timbreo and Sir Girondo each ready to hand over Fenicia regardless of her choice. Shakespeare rejects also the unlikely situation in Bandello when Sir Girondo, penitent after his appalling conduct, is again received into Lionato's family and shares in the wedding celebrations.

Among other main differences from Bandello are the equalizing of rank between Claudio and Hero, whose father is Governor of Messina, gracious and generous host of Don Pedro, not merely the head of a reduced though ancient family. This results in social cordiality all round among friends and eliminates any intrusive considerations of status. Of more importance are the different ways in which the accusation and its sequel are managed. In Bandello, Sir Timbreo alone sees the ladder trick. He then engages a friend to break off the betrothal before ever the wedding ceremony is reached. He wholly fails to convince Fenicia's family that she is guilty, and soon he begins to suspect his own judgement. Claudio on the other hand has fellow witnesses, in one of whom he has every confidence, and what they think they see is corroborated by Borachio. Then, though earlier he has had Don Pedro woo for him, Claudio himself takes up in church the role of accuser and performs it with highly dramatic effect; the impact is much stronger than with Bandello's breach negotiated by proxy, effected in Leonato's own household. So clear does the evidence seem, and so authoritative are the witnesses, that Leonato is convinced, and even Benedick is ‘attir'd in wonder’ (IV.i.144) until Beatrice makes his mind up for him. And Claudio, far from coming to suspect his own judgement, has to behave with egregious tactlessness, to be challenged by Benedick (analogously to the situation in Ariosto, though this one is differently handled), and have his error dispelled by Dogberry.

Neither Bandello nor Shakespeare intends the tragic shock to be unbearable; both provide assurance of relief. But this happens in quite different ways. Bandello has Lionato's family confident that God will reveal the truth; Shakespeare has Dogberry's Watch discover it beforehand, and the Friar give spiritual comfort in church. The passions of Claudio and Leonato stretch the nerves in one direction: knowledge that enlightenment will soon dawn relieves them in the other (though Benedick's challenge to Claudio, instigated by the marvellously welcome indignation of Beatrice, maintains the potential of tension). Finally, Dogberry's bumblings produce an enormously enjoyable sense of relaxation.

As for Claudio's conduct, from accusation to clarification, it is far more disturbing than Sir Timbreo's. Whatever...


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