Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing shows us the poet at the height of his creative powers. His verse had yet to find that deeper timbre we later hear in Macbeth and King Lear. But as Swinburn expresses it, “for absolute power of composition, faultless balance, and blameless rectitude of design, there is no creation of Shakespeare’s that will bear comparison with it.”1
The elegant plot unfolds like a fugue of illusion and revelation. The illegitimate Don John seeks revenge against his brother Don Pedro the Prince of Arragon. He strikes at his favorite, Claudio, who early in the play becomes engaged to Hero, the daughter of Leonato. Don John deceives him into believing that she is unfaithful, scoring a victory over his rival who arranged the match.
But before this storm breaks, a more benign ruse is set in motion. Beatrice and Benedick continually trade humorous insults in a friendly “war of wits,” and both have sworn never to marry. Their companions play at matchmaking, convincing each that the other is secretly in love with them. And from these unreal seeds, a true love springs up between them like a glorious flower.
When Don John’s deception succeeds, the enraged Claudio denounces Hero at the altar, and the stunned bride-not-to-be faints. A kindly priest hides her and gives out that she is dead.
This situation enrages Leonato, and Beatrice even goes so far as to demand that Benedick kill Claudio. All seems lost until the bumbling Constable Dogberry manages to catch the culprits. The lovers are reunited, Benedick and Beatrice plight their feisty troth, and Don John is brought to justice.
Apart from its beautiful design, another aspect of the play merits our attention. From the first, Shakespeare showed a tremendous facility for characterization. There is a warmth and humanness about these people that has no equal in the comedy of his contemporaries.
The difference becomes readily apparent if we glance at a play like Ben Jonson’s The Alchemist. We cannot conceive of Jeremy, Subtle, or their victims having much life outside the drama in which they find themselves. They are stock characters whose only function is to illustrate various vices and follies for our amusement.
But the characters in Much Ado About Nothing show remarkable psychological depth. For example, when Claudio sulks, thinking Don Pedro has deceived him and wooed Hero for himself, we realize his insecurity and naivete. And his cruelty in publicly denouncing his erstwhile fiance at the very altar is of a piece with these earlier hints about his immature temperament.
Despite their story being a subplot, Beatrice and Benedick seem to be at the heart of the play. At first, we may find her full of wild contradictions; so merry that if she has sad dreams, she wakes herself with laughter, so independent as to desire to remain single, and so loyal as to demand the death of the man who has wronged her cousin. Yet by some magic of his art, Shakespeare scumbles these paradoxical traits into a lively and engaging portrait.
And when she asks Benedick to kill Claudio, we see him wrestle mightily with the implications of his newfound love and the realization that he must choose a side. His instincts tell him that Hero is innocent. So he must either embrace the lie that Claudio was in the right or alienate himself from his employer and attempt to kill his friend. To his credit, he chooses Beatrice and the truth. And although he confesses at the end that “man is a giddy thing,” it is evident that his experience of love has deepened him in ways that he does not suspect.
By contrast, the amiable Don Pedro remains a facile boor throughout. He can’t understand Leonato’s rage at his daughter’s humiliation and supposed death. It doesn’t seem to have occurred to him that he and Claudio have acted badly. From his perspective, they are the injured parties, and only the Prince’s good breeding prevents him from taking seriously the old man’s verbal attacks and threats of physical violence.
Despite its lighthearted tone, then, Much Ado veers into the territory of pathos, albeit in a minor key. The scene in which the Prince and Claudio attempt to inveigle Benedick back into the jocular friendship they shared at the outset illustrates this exceptionally well. Benedick, in anger, refuses to be drawn, leaving his friends baffled and sad. Hero’s humiliation and fictional death have ruptured the easy social relations we see at the beginning of the drama. And although, in the end, everything seems to be resolved, these characters are so true to life that we can’t help wondering what will happen to them in aftertimes.
Above all, Much Ado About Nothing is one of Shakespeare’s most musical plays. It boasts seven songs and dances, and the poet even stitched the titles of popular tunes of the day into the fabric of his dialogue.2
Scholars assert that “nothing” in Shakespeare’s era was pronounced more like “noting.”3 And much humorous byplay is made on the confusion between musical notation, taking note of something, and the nothing of the title. Nearly fifty references to music, musical instruments, and terminology sprinkle the text making it a significant preoccupation of the work.
In other plays where we see such accretions, we find obvious connections to the central themes. For example, numerous references to borrowed or ill-fitting garments reinforce our understanding of Macbeth’s illicit ambition. The regal mantle sits loosely on him because he is too small a man to fill the role he has usurped.4
And while there is no explicit parallel that we can point to in the present case, perhaps Beatrice gives us the key when she says, “there is measure in everything.” This is undoubtedly true in the world of the play, where the bard’s sure fingers touch the frets and strum out an easy cadence in every scene. But we may also read this in another way. The best way to understand the play itself is as a kind of musical composition. It has its harmonies of ideas, its movements of capriccio and furioso. And we must simply keep our silence and listen to its song.
- Goddard, Harold C. The Meaning of Shakespeare Vol 1. University of Chicago Press, p. 278
- Goddard, p.271
- Brooks, Cleanth, The Well Wrought Urn, A Harvest Book, p.32
Measure in Everything and Much Ado About Nothing: Copyright 2022 Jonathan Golding. All Rights Reserved.
Artwork: The Love Song, Sir Edward Burn-Jones, 1868, Open Access Public Domain