Study Guide

Much Ado About Nothing

By William Shakespeare

Much Ado About Nothing Introduction

Much Ado About Nothing is basically big Billy Shakespeare's crowd-pleaser. If we were going to compare Shakespeare to Spielberg (why not?), Much Ado would be his Jurassic Park. If we were to compare Shakespeare to The Beatles (both English, right?), Much Ado would be like the album Sgt. Pepper's.

Basically, Much Ado About Nothing is almost impossible to hate. Going a step further, it's impossible not to love. It's like a plate of nachos: when you put a certain combination of factors together it's just physically not possible to be anything less than totally pleased.

Also, Much Ado, like Jurassic Park and Sgt. Pepper's, represented a mid-career peak—a pretty awesome period of Shakespeare being at the top of his game. Written around 1598, the play is about a young woman wrongly accused of sleeping around 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. We all know how that one works out in rom-coms.

The play trips along at a steady (and kind of manic) pace as characters invent and pass on totally misleading information; watching this play is like watching people playing a 16th Century game of Telephone. Much Ado (as the title suggests) is all about how hilarious it is when people make a big hullabaloo about nothing… especially when you're seated comfily in the audience away from the gossip.

But it's not just a rom-com prototype, despite the bantering couples and the happy comedy ending. It also has a huge snarl of subplots involving some of the weirdest scumbags to ever grace the Shakespearean stage (Michael Keaton plays one of them in the 1993 Kenneth Branagh film adaptation, 'nuff said).

And it doesn't shy away from villains either. Part of the magic of studying Much Ado About Nothing is watching Billy Shakespeare get more nuanced with his characters. Don John, the inexplicably evil villain of this play, is a model for the inexplicably evil Iago of Shakespeare’s later play Othello. And Beatrice and Benedick’s acidic romance is a more developed version of the hatred-turned-to-love from The Taming of the Shrew.

But even if you're not reading this with an eye for Shakespeare scholarship, you'll still enjoy this play. Like we said: you can't not. Not liking Much Ado is like not liking to watch videos of baby animals, lie in the grass on a warm day, or read Calvin And Hobbes. It categorically cannot be done.

What is Much Ado About Nothing About and Why Should I Care?

One word: plot. Okay, a few more words: Shakespeare, master, English language, insanely important influence on basically all literature that came after his time.

Ugh. Every time we think we can do things succinctly, something foils our plans (we have a lot in common with the characters in Much Ado About Nothing.)

Basically, Shakespeare is the most influential writer in the English language. Ever. And reading Much Ado About Nothing offers you a weird little window into the bald man's brainpan: you get to see how he became so insanely important.

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 Shakespeare later created? A) Lady Macbeth, B) Iago from 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.

Basically, Much Ado shows you the skeleton of those Big 4 tragedies.

But let's say, for the sake of argument, that you don't care for some inexplicable reason about getting an insider's view into the workings of Billy Shakespeare. Well, Much Ado will still entertain you, make you happily confused in the way of a Shakespearean comedy, and possibly defrost the icy cynics out there and make you believe in love again.

All that and a chance to watch Shakespeare work his plot magic? Almost too good to be true, we know.

Much Ado About Nothing Resources

Movie or TV Productions

2005 TV Miniseries
The BBC Drama Group presents Much Ado About Nothing, set in a modern day TV studio.

1993 Movie
A film of Much Ado About Nothing directed by Kenneth Branagh. Branagh plays Benedick, Emma Thompson acts as Beatrice, Kate Beckinsale is Hero, and Keanu Reeves plays Don John.

1984 TV Movie
A TV version of the play. It’s a well-regarded BBC Miniseries production.

1973 Performance
A filmed performance of the New York Shakespeare Festival playing Much Ado About Nothing, set in the 1920s.

1973 Movie
A Russian film of Much Ado About Nothing (titled Mnogo shuma iz nichego), directed by Samson Samsonov.

Images

A Poster for the Play
University of Maryland Baltimore County’s poster for their 2005 Production of Much Ado About Nothing.

PBS Shakespeare Poster
Movie poster from PBS Shakespeare for Much Ado About Nothing.

Beatrice and Benedick
Emma Thompson as Beatrice and Kenneth Branagh as Benedick in Kenneth Branagh’s 1993 production of Much Ado About Nothing.

A Love Scene
Another picture of Emma Thompson and Kenneth Branagh in the 1993 production of Much Ado About Nothing.

Documents

Online Version of Much Ado About Nothing
A copy of the complete text of Much Ado About Nothing, broken neatly into scenes. Be careful! Though the acts and scenes are marked correctly, the site author uses his own system for line-numbering, so though the text is correct, the line numbers won’t correspond to your printed editions. Still, it's wonderfully searchable and has the neat feature of allowing you to see all the lines (and cue lines) for individual characters.

Another Online Copy of the Play
A complete text of Much Ado About Nothing from the fantastically reliable bartleby.com. It’s reprinted from The Oxford Shakespeare of 1914. Again, be aware that the line numbers won’t correspond with modern printed editions.

Tales from Shakespeare
This is a super cool facsimile of interpretation of Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing, as taken from Charles and Mary Lamb’s Tales from Shakespeare. The two authors set out (in late 19th century style) to present Shakespeare in a way that was captivating and accessible for younger readers. It’s a wonderful look at Shakespeare interpretation from the 19th century.

More Tales from Shakespeare
A more plain and straight presentation of the Lambs’ Much Ado About Nothing, excerpted from the remainder of the book.

Other

Internet Shakespeare Editions
This is a great site from the Internet Shakespeare Editions, including facsimiles of the play from a variety of early printings, and the text of the play from the First Folio of 1623 and the First Quarto of 1600. Definitely check out the "Life and Times" section for some interesting commentary.

"Much Ado About Nothing: An analysis of the play by Shakespeare"
A short essay with some points to ponder about Much Ado About Nothing. It includes a brief look at content and performance history, with links to some of the play’s more important monologues.

Modern Much Ado
Here’s the website for the odd, modernized 2005 BBC production of Much Ado About Nothing. The story is set in a newsroom, Anchorman style.

"Much Ado About ‘Noting’"
A brief and incisive essay on "noting" in Much Ado About Nothing.