Much Ado About Nothing
By Dennis Abrams
Don Pedro, Prince of Aragon
Benedick, a young lord from Padua
Claudio, Benedick’s companion, a young lord from Florence
Balthasar, a singer attending Don Pedro
Don John, Don Pedro’s illegitimate brother
Borachio and Conrad, followers of Don John
Leonato, governor of Messina
Hero, Leonato’s daughter
Beatrice, Leonato’s niece, an orphan
Antonio, Leonato’s brother, an old man
Margaret and Ursula, Hero’s attendants
Dogberry, a parish constable in charge of the Watchmen
Verges, Dogberry’s partner, a lower-ranking constable
A Sexton [church officer]
Between mid 1598 and early 1599 – flanked by 2 Henry IV and Henry V
Ariosto’s Orlando Furioso (1516) is a possible source for the Hero-Claudio plot, possibly filtered through Mateo Bandello’s La Prima Parte de le Novelle (though the tale occurs in multiple versions). The Beatrice-Benedick story is most likely Shakespeare’s own, as is the clownish Watch.
The 1600 quarto Much Ado was set from Shakespeare’s working papers; some of the speech prefixes mistakenly use actor’s names instead of the characters. This text was reprinted in the 1623 Folio with a few amendments.
Act One: Accompanied by his daughter Hero and niece Beatrice, Leonato, governor of Messina, awaits the return of Don Pedro, fresh from victory in war. Don Pedro arrives along with Claudio and Benedick, the latter an acquaintance of Beatrice – with whom he obviously has a relationship of mutual mockery. When, after Leonato’s party has left, Claudio reveals that he is in love with Hero, Don Pedro offers to help win her by impersonating Claudio at a masked ball that evening. When the plan reaches Leonato, he advises Hero to accept. But casting a shadow over events is Don John – who seems determined to cause mischief and get his revenge.
Shakespeare’s penchant for throwaway titles is often commented on, especially in this, his middle period, around the turn of the sixteenth century, when he seems to have been particularly fond of selecting titles with a kind of cheeky (British term, right?), take-it-or-leave-it quality. As You Like It and What You Will (the latter better known as Twelfth Night) tease their audience not to take things, or their author, too seriously; while later comedies such as Measure for Measure and All’s Well That Ends Well dare audiences to take their titles – and the contortions of their plots – at face value.
Much Ado About Nothing sits squarely in the middle of this period, and its title plays multiple games with readers and audience alike. Taking it at face value, the phrase seems to deny that there’s anything worth getting upset about: there may well be ‘much ado” as the lovers get themselves sorted out, but things will come out all right at the end. The well-known song sung by Balthasar to Benedick midway through the play picks up on just this idea: “Sigh no more, ladies, sigh no more,” he croons,
Men were deceivers ever,
One foot in sea, and one on shore,
To one thing constant never.
Then sigh not so, but let them go
And be you blithe and bonny,
Converting all your sounds of woe
Into hey nonny, noony.
Whatever happens, the song insists – jealousy, bitterness, betrayal – you have to keep on singing, converting “sounds of woe” into nonsense like “hey nonny, nonny.” “These are very crochets [trivialities] that he speaks,” says Don Pedro to Balthasar just beforehand, reaching for a musical pun. “Note notes, forsooth, and nothing!”
Shakespeare’s audiences would also have heard a much bawdier joke in the play’s title. “Nothing” was risqué Elizabethan slang, usually referring to the female sex organs, but in practice, pretty much all-purpose. In this light the play’s concern with love and sex seems a little more cynical (where does all that “ado” get you?), but the playfulness remains. Yet another possible meaning of “nothing” can be obtained by removing the “h,” as Elizabethan pronunciation often did. The comedy and tragedy of the play both rest on observation and overhearing, whether it’s Benedick and Beatrice listening in to reports of the other’s frenzied love or Claudio being persuaded that Hero has been unfaithful to him. When tempted, the title implies, people “note” things that are in fact “nothing.”
Tanner expands on the meanings of the play’s title:
“A word about the title. It can certainly mean just what it seems to mean – to ‘make great ado about small matters’ is another contemporary formulation. In addition, a Victorian editor (Richard Grant White) maintained that, in Elizabethan pronunciation, ‘nothing’ and ‘noting’ sounded very much the same, and the plot of the play depends on ‘noting’ – watching, judging, noting, often incorrectly. This is certainly central to the play, and there is an odd bit of banter between Balthasar and Don Pedro, just before Balthasar sings his famous song ‘Sigh no more ladies,’
Note this before my notes:
There’s not a note of mine that’s worth noting.
Why, these are very crotchets that he speaks!
Note notes, forsooth, and nothing!
(The song itself is full of dire warnings to the ladies: ‘Men were deceivers ever…To one thing constant never…The fraud of men was ever so…’ — apt enough, in view of what is to transpire.) I am actually a little dubious about ‘nothing’ and ‘noting’ having been homophonic, though this has become part of the standard reading of the play.
But there were other associations around ‘nothing’ for the Elizabethans, which, indeed, a Victorian critic would have gone of his way not to ‘note.’ To my knowledge, Roger Sales was the first person to spell these out. A ‘thing’ was common slang for the phallus, so ‘no thing’ could be used – mockingly, even insultingly – of the female genitalia. Remember Hamlet and Ophelia:
Do you think I meant country matters?
I think nothing, my lord.
That’s a fair thought to lie between maids’ legs.
What is, my lord?
And thus Benedick and Beatrice, as they finally reveal their attraction for each other:
I do love nothing in the world so well as you. Is not that strange?
As strange as the thing I know not.
Sales suggests that ‘the title probably offered both a sexual statement and, more importantly, the promise of more sexual jokes to come. Benedick and Beatrice fulfill such expectations, even during the play’s potentially somber moments.’ It is perhaps worth remembering that the main males in the play are just back from a victory in some unspecified war which is now over. The Elizabethans used to say that armies in peacetime were like chimneys in summer (and the phallic aspect of a chimney is appropriate). It is now apres le guerre, and it will take something, it will take ‘nothing’ – it will take women – to get these unemployed soldier-chimneys smoking again. As Claudio says:
But now I am returned and that war-thoughts
Have left their places vacant, in their rooms
Come thronging soft and delicate desires…
The court of Messina is a new kind of world in Shakespeare’s comedies. It is as though he has decided to shed most of the usual romantic trappings – of landscapes, disguisings, dialogues. There is no Belmont adjacent to this Messina. The play is mostly in prose, with few opportunities for self-inflaming lyricism. It has been called (by David Stevenson) ‘the most realistic of Shakespeare’s love comedies’; and while Rossiter did not diagnose a lack of feeling in the play, he felt he detected a certain ‘hard’ quality – ‘a bright hardness runs through the play.’ Bright it is: it glitters and sparkles and flashes. These people are so quick and inventive; yet so nonchalant and casual, withal. There is so much happy, self-delighting intelligence and mental alertness in the air – what Rossiter called ‘impetuous exuberance’ and ‘competitive vitality.’ Wit abounds; and it not the cerebral wit of a Voltaire, but something altogether more expansive, unexpected, joyous. Coleridge compared it to ‘the flourishing of a man’s stick while he is walking, in the full flow of animal spirits, a sort of exuberance of hilarity which…resembles a conductor, to distribute a portion of gladness to the surrounding air.’ (quoted by A.R., Humphreys in his Arden edition.) [AND MY NOTE: Far be it for me to make a word play on the “flourishing of a man’s stick…”]
And finally, a very interesting (and deeply expanded and philosophical) look at “nothing” from Harold C. Goddard:
“It has often been noted that the titles of the three comedies that Shakespeare wrote just on the threshold of his supreme tragic period, Much Ado About Nothing, As You Like It, and What You Will (alias Twelfth Night), indicate a rather nonchalant attitude on his part toward these productions, not to say an innocently condescending one toward his audience. Each is a masterpiece of its kind, and yet, when we think of Othello and Macbeth, they do give us the impression of having been tossed off, so to speak, by a genius that was ready for immensely greater things. It is as if the author wrote them with his little finger.
Much Ado About Nothing is in some ways Shakespeare’s most enticing title. Superficially it seems to suggest that the content of the play itself is trifling or inconsequential. Someone who would have it taken less lightly has pointed out that ‘nothing,’ in Elizabethan times, was pronounced almost as ‘noting’ is today and would have us note that noting, or eavesdropping, plays an important role in the play. It would be quite like Shakespeare to intend something of the sort. But those who seek a deeper meaning in the title should not stop at that level.
Of the four words in it, Nothing is the most interesting. Indeed, in all of Shakespeare’s immense vocabulary there are few more interesting words. He uses it often enough of course in its usual signification. But he uses it also in a way of his own.
If I draw a circle on the sand or on a piece of paper, instantly the spatial universe is divided into two parts, the finite portion within the circle (or the sphere if we think of it in three dimensions) and the infinite remainder outside of it. Actuality and possibility have a similar relation. Actuality is what is within the circle. However immense it be conceived to be, beyond it extends not merely the infinite but the infinitely infinite realm of what might have been but was not, of what may be but is not. In this realm are all the deeds that were not done when the other choice was made, all the roads that were not traveled when the other fork was taken, all the life that did not come into existence when its seeds failed to germinate. And in it no less is all that may still be: all the possible combinations of chemical elements that have never been made, all the music that is still uncomposed, all the babies that have not yet been born. This is the realm of NOTHING. In one sense it has no existence. In another, existence is nothing without it. For out of it ghosts are perpetually being summoned by our hopes and fears – which are themselves made of nothing – to be incorporated into the world of FACT. The interflow and union between these two realms is the type and father of all the alchemies and chemistries. ‘He who has never hoped shall never receive what he has never hoped for.’ Thus Heraclitus packs it into a sentence. Ex nihilo nihil fit is but a half-truth. For out of something nothing new ever came without the aid of ‘nothing’ in this high potential sense. Nothing is thus practically a synonym for creativity. It is that realm of pure possibility that alone makes freedom possible. It is one of the two constituents of the imagination, the other being fact.
Shakespeare delighted in using the word ‘nothing’ in this high metaphysical sense. It is easy to see why any artist might.
Today a sheet of white paper on the table; tomorrow a poem on the same paper. Today a white canvas; tomorrow a painting. ‘And God said, Let there be light: and there was light.’ The poem or the picture is the same miracle on a smaller scale. How could Shakespeare have failed to feel the wonder of it when at least he held in his hands a completed Hamlet or King Lear? Where had it come from? Out of nothing. He says as much himself in A Midsummer Night’s Dream:
as imagination bodies forth
The forms of things unknown, the poet’s pen
Turns them into shapes, and gives to airy nothing
A local habitation and a name.
Here is one of the first and one of the clearest instances in which he equates nothing and the idea of pure creativity.
Beyond doubt the most impressive use of the word ‘nothing’ in this sense in all Shakespeare is Cordelia’s in the opening scene of King Lear, though Cordelia was of course unconscious, at the time, that she was using the word in any but its ordinary sense. Having elicited their effusive and hypocritical protestations of love from his two older daughters, Lear turns to his youngest and asks her what she can say to outdo them. She says nothing. Her silence, which says everything, presently becomes unbearable. ‘Speak,’ her father commands.
Cordelia: Nothing, my lord.
Lear: Nothing will come of nothing.
But when we have finished the story we see that everything came of nothing. King Lear was right in prophesying that nothing in the way of material inheritance would come of Cordelia’s ‘nothing.’ But her whole spiritual inheritance came from nothing else. Between the covers of Shakespeare’s works it would be hard to find one word more instinct with creativity than that ‘nothing’ of Cordelia’s. ‘Nothing brings me all things,’ exclaims Timon of Athens, brought at last to that ultimate bound where everything turns to its opposite. That sentence sums it up, puts the final stamp of the positive on this most negative of words.
Now, if our eyes are not so dazzled by Beatrice and Benedick and the glitter of their wit, or our risibilites so tickled by Dogberry and his companions, that we cannot attend to the play as a whole, we shall see that it is dedicated to this idea of Nothing. It is full of lies, deceptions, (innocent and not so innocent), and imagination, and these things grade into one another as imperceptibly as darkness does into light. Yet, notwithstanding that fact, the extremes – namely, lies and imagination – are seen to be as opposite as night and noon.
Nature, unless we watch her long and closely, appears to be neutral and unmoral, equally hospitable to either of these opposites, able to digest the one or the other with the same facility. But like poison given to work a long time after, the lie in the long run (if not in the short) fails to get on with the facts of the world into which it has been introduced, and has the effect of a grain of sand in a watch or other fine mechanism. It send nature back, however slightly, toward chaos. Whereas imagination has the opposite effect of enabling more facts to get on better with one another than would have been the case without it. It introduces harmony, as do reconciliation and atonement. False and blatant advertising and publicity may sell a shoddy novel for a time. But the works of Shakespeare go on gaining more readers indefinitely on their own momentum. Here are two kinds of success that it behooves us not to confuse. ‘The end justifies the means,’ we say. Does it? Yes, or no, according to the interpretation we put on those five Delphic words, for if ever a maxim embraced the extremes of virtue and knavery, it is this one.
The end justifies the means: the end crowns the whole; the harvest is the test of the garden, the apple of the apple tree, the arrival at the summit is proof that the climber took a right way up. ‘By their fruits ye shall know them.’ This is the pragmatism of Jesus, the bringing of truth to the test of life, life in his high sense of more abundant life, that fullness for which each new creature is by its nature fitted. Over against this authentic pragmatism is the shabby pragmatism of all the self-seekers, opportunists, and deluders of mankind from Machiavelli to Mussolini, or, to go further back and come further down, from Satan himself to the last American who says ‘Anything goes, so long as you can get away with it.’ It is the doctrine that a high purpose sanctifies and sanctions any means, however base, of attaining it. Raskolnikov reasoned that it was right to rob and kill so long as he intended to put the money to good use. Hitler made his vision of a New Order his excuse for plunging the world into war. Jesus and Hitler, Christ and Anti-Christ: such as the opposite philosophies hidden in the same five words. On a confusion between them both self-delusion and deliberate malice thrive. Much Ado About Nothing might have been written to make the distinction between them clear.”
And you thought this was just going to be a light-hearted sophisticated comedy?
And on a slightly different note, I wrote a piece for Publishing Perspectives on a very cool new Shakespeare app that can add a lot to your reading experience — you can read about it here.
Our next reading: Much Ado About Nothing, Act Two
My next post: Thursday evening/Friday morning