Much Ado About Nothing is one of William Shakespeare’s best-loved comedies. Written around 1598, the play is about a young woman wrongly accused of being unchaste who is later reconciled with her accusing lover. It is also about a second couple – two witty, bright individuals who swear they will never fall in love.
Stories about young women wrongly accused, brought close to death, and then rejoined with their lovers were really popular during the Renaissance. Shakespeare used that trope (which can be traced all the way back to the Greek romances) to make this light and silly comedy. The play trips along at a steady place as characters invent and pass on totally misleading information; watching this process as it undoes characters is like playing a 16th century game of Telephone.
This is a neat chance to watch Shakespeare shake a complex (sometimes unnecessarily complex) plot. Further, it’s a cool "study in progress" of Shakespeare: Beatrice and Benedick’s acidic romance is a more developed version of the hatred-turned-to-love from The Taming of the Shrew; and Don John, the inexplicably evil villain of this play, is a sort of character study for the inexplicably evil Iago of Shakespeare’s later play Othello.
Much Ado About Nothing is an important insight into Shakespeare’s craft and development as a writer. Why should you care about that, you say? Because Shakespeare is one of the most referenced and revered writers through all of literature, even more important than J.K. Rowling, if you can believe it.
In this play, we watch Shakespeare shake out some of the plots, character types, and methods he’ll later use in both his comedies and tragedies. In case you don’t believe us, here’s a bit of Shakespeare trivia for you: Don John is a character sketch for which villain that Shakespeare later created? A) Macbeth, B) Iago of Othello, or C) Iago the parrot. (The correct answer is B, good job.)
Much Ado is built on a lot of the raucous misunderstandings that anchor his earlier work A Midsummer Night’s Dream. The misunderstandings that are such a source of comedy here, become the tragic stuff of Othello. Shakespeare had yet to write his intricate and fantastic four tragedies, King Lear, Othello, Macbeth, and Hamlet, and we can imagine that something like Much Ado is a necessary writing exercise to be able to pin down the complex actions and interactions that all of those plays are built upon.
The play is an excellent introduction to Shakespeare’s work, because it has all the tragic and comedic components of a complex Shakespearean work and provides them in an accessible way. To the reader whose seen a bit more of Shakespeare, the play is a wonderful opportunity to recognize how the artist is perfecting his craft, taking conceits and tropes from this play and developing them for later plays. Both camps – Shakespeare veterans and Shakespeare amateurs – can appreciate this play as a scaffolding for Shakespeare’s more lofty works.