Much Ado About Nothing
Leonato — the father of Hero and the uncle of Beatrice
Don Pedro — sometimes called “the Prince” a longtime friend of Leonato
Don John — sometimes called “the Bastard” the illegitimate brother of Don Pedro
Claudio — a young soldier who falls in love with Hero
Hero — the beautiful young daughter of Leonato and the cousin of Beatrice
Benedick — a friend and soldier of Don Pedro
Beatrice — Leonato's niece and Hero's cousin
Margaret — Hero's maid
Ursula — one of Hero's serving women
Borachio — Don John's servant and Margaret's lover
Conrade — one of Don John's servants
Dogberry — the constable of Messina
Verges — Dogberry's assistant
Antonio — Leonato's older brother and uncle to Hero and Beatrice
Friar Francis — a monk
Much Ado About Nothing is generally considered one of Shakespeare's best comedies. It was probably written around 1598–99, as Shakespeare was approaching the middle of his career. Like A Midsummer Night's Dream, As You Like It, and Twelfth Night, it has few dark elements and provides a happy ending with no deaths.
The verbal sparring between Beatrice and Benedick may have been inspired by the fictional debates between a man and a woman created by the Italian writer Baldassare Castiglione in The Book of the Courtier (1528). Critics think the Hero-Claudio plot is based on Orlando Furioso (1532), an Italian epic poem by Ludovico Ariosto. Shakespeare may have read a translation by Sir John Harrington published in 1591. The character of Dogberry, the comic policeman or constable, is reminiscent of Constable Dull in Love's Labour's Lost and is an original creation by Shakespeare.
Don Pedro, the prince of Arragon, and two of his officers, Benedick and Claudio, visit Don Pedro's old friend Leonato, the governor of Messina. Claudio quickly falls in love with Leonato's daughter, Hero. Benedick continues a battle of wits with Beatrice, the governor's niece.
Don Pedro, with Leonato, Claudio, and Hero's help, decides it's time Benedick and Beatrice stopped tormenting each other verbally and admit that they are in love. To that end, Benedick and Beatrice are each made to think the other has secretly professed a great love for the other.
Don John despises Claudio, and when he learns about his impending marriage to Hero, he decides to ruin it. He tells Claudio that Pedro wants Hero for himself. Then he gets his servant Borachio and Hero's maid Margaret to stage an episode that will make it seem as though Hero is a loose woman.
The play has been popular since it was first staged and it is a contemporary favorite. In 1862, Hector Berlioz used it as the basis for his opera Beatrice and Benedict. What To Do About Nothing, a 1998 play by Judy Sheehan, retells the story, using gossip and eavesdropping as key elements, and setting it against the backdrop of the McCarthy “red scare” during the early 1950s in America.
Claudio is so upset that he denounces Hero at the altar. Friar Francis hides her away and with Beatrice's help announces that Hero has died of grief. Borachio drunkenly boasts of his part in the plan — and the 1,000 ducats Don John paid him — and is arrested by Dogberry and the watch.
Hero is exonerated and Claudio is grief-stricken at what he has done, still thinking Hero dead. Leonato demands a public apology from Claudio, then tells him that he must marry one of his nieces in Hero's place. The niece turns out to be Hero, of course, miraculously brought back to life. Claudio and Hero are reunited, and Benedick and Beatrice realize they love each other and get married at the same time. The bastard Don John is apprehended and will be brought to justice for his mischief making.
Although Much Ado About Nothing is a light comedy, some critics are troubled by the anger, betrayal, hatred, grief, and despair that are at the center of the play. Like other Shakespearean comedies, for part of the time Much Ado About Nothing threatens to become a tragedy. The plot is an elaborate network of schemes and tricks, and it shares elements with Romeo and Juliet, The Taming of the Shrew, and even Othello, reminding us that comedy and tragedy are opposite ends of the same line.
Beatrice and Benedick's mature love affair can be compared in some ways to Antony and Cleopatra's, but is much happier and healthier. They are one of Shakespeare's most mature and nuanced couples.
While Hero and Claudio are the engine of the plot, it is actually the courtship of the older and wiser Benedick and Beatrice that makes this play such fun. Their journey from an emotional defensiveness and withdrawal brought about by their ages, which they defend with great wit, to deep affection is developed with a rich humor and compassion.
“He wears his faith but as the fashion of his hat” (Act I, Scene I).
“What, my dear Lady Disdain! are you yet living?” (Act I, Scene I).
“Shall I never see a bachelor of threescore again?” (Act I, Scene I).
“As merry as the day is long” (Act II, Scene I).
“Speak low if you speak love” (Act II, Scene I).
“Friendship is constant in all other things
“Some Cupid kills with arrows, some with traps” (Act III, Scene I).
“Every one can master a grief but he that has it” (Act III, Scene II).
“Are you good men and true?” (Act III, Scene III).
“O, what men dare do! what men may do! what men daily do, not knowing what they do!” (Act IV, Scene I).
“For it so falls out
“Condemned into everlasting redemption” (Act IV, Scene II).
“For there was never yet philosopher
“Done to death by slanderous tongues” (Act V, Scene III).