Study Guide

Much Ado About Nothing Analysis

By William Shakespeare

  • Tone

    Snarky, Dismissive, Compassionate

    This is one of Shakespeare’s more interesting comedies because not everyone—even our heroes—is portrayed sympathetically. 

    It seems deliberately difficult to relate to Claudio, who is about as fascinating as a limp dishcloth... except when he’s being an awful jerk. We love Beatrice and Benedick the most when they’re sharpest and cruelest with each other:

    BENEDICK Then is courtesy a turncoat. But it is certain I am loved of all ladies, only you excepted; and I would I could find in my heart that I had not a hard heart, for truly I love none. 

    BEATRICE A dear happiness to women! They would else have been troubled with a pernicious suitor. I thank God and my cold blood, I am of your humor for that. I had rather hear my dog bark at a crow than a man swear he loves me. (1.1.122-130)

    These characters are most rich and complex when they’re portraying the darker side of life. This is not a play celebrating the gauzy happiness of love. Instead, Shakespeare is a bit dismissive about the more common, typical parts of people—he makes them uninteresting when they’re most stable. 

    Still, Shakespeare doesn’t let everything go to pot and dance on the ashes of the chaos (as he does in the tragedies). Ultimately he’s compassionate to the characters because they all succeed in the end— except the bad guy, of course.

  • Genre

    Comedy

    The plot has two classic Shakespearean tip offs that this play is probably a comedy: nobody dies, and there are some marriages. Also a good sign that we’re dealing with a comedy: the play is funny. There’s probably a temptation to call the play a romance, because the play is technically centered on love, but really, the love is more funny than romantic. The love between Claudio and Hero is laughable in the sense that the lovers never have a single on-stage conversation until their wedding (which turns out not to be a lovey-dovey affair). Their feelings are stereotypical representations of young love – handed over easily and taken back just as easily. The lack of depth and development in their relationship is clear; they end up being caricatures of what happens when a relationship isn’t internally strong, and is impacted by external stuff. Troublesome fun abounds as a result, forming the action of the whole play.

    The love between Beatrice and Benedick is funny in a different way. Beatrice and Benedick are hysterical in their own right, but their relationship also highlights the comedic side of love. Their initial interactions are sparky because of how much they hate each other, and it’s rather funny to watch them suddenly come to terms with loving each other. Benedick and Beatrice’s hatred of each other is so perfect that it’s even more ludicrous that they might love each other.

  • What’s Up With the Title?

    As a title, Much Ado About Nothing fits neatly with those of Shakespeare’s other plays written around the same time: the titles seem whimsical and even flippant. Twelfth Night was alternatively titled What You Will, and As You Like It seems a much less informative title than, say, The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark. Still, the capricious titles are actually as reflective of their content as any history or tragedy title. The plot of Much Ado About Nothing centers on a lot of hubbub over little misunderstandings; there’s a whole lot of fuss about stuff that ultimately isn’t that important.

    For the bigger issues in the play, though, we turn to the fact that, in Shakespeare’s day, "nothing" was often pronounced the same way as "noting." The play is built around the process of "noting," which has myriad meanings. It can mean "to take notice of" something, to eavesdrop, to observe, or to write something down – but these notings aren’t necessarily accurate. A person can misunderstand a meaning, or mishear, or misreport something, in the process of noting too. The foibles that result from noting (and misnoting) are central to keeping the play spinning.

    If that wasn’t interesting enough for you, you might want to note that "nothing" was also an Elizabethan slang term for the vagina. "Much Ado About Vagina" makes sense as a title, right? After all, the highs and lows of the play revolve around men and their relationships with, suspicion of, and lack of relationships with…women. Reading the title this way puts women in a central and powerful role in the play: while the men are the ones working, the women are what they’re working for.

  • Setting

    Messina, a city on the island of Sicily in southern Italy, sometime in the 16th century

    Messina is a bustling port city, but its climate makes it agricultural as well, meaning the men returning from battle with Don Pedro would likely view Messina as a welcome respite from the battlefield. The whole point of the soldiers coming to Messina is that they’re in an idyllic setting, away from the action of the war.

    While most of the play occurs around Leonato’s house, Leonato’s orchard (or garden) figures as a central place of action as well. It’s where Benedick and Beatrice hear the conversations about each other's "love." Language about the beautiful garden gives us a good feeling for the whimsical romance that characterizes the play.

    The setting is also bigger than its physical realm – we learn that Messina is a respite from the battlefield because it sets the scene for the play to take place in a holiday-like mood. While the play is not a true pastoral play in the sense that everyone is unfamiliar with Messina, the soldiers’ presence in Messina shakes things up – the space is suddenly set up for matchmaking and merriment. The soldiers are in a loving mood now that their minds have turned from war, and Leonato’s house is excited to have the soldiers visit. The mood, like the atmosphere, is generally festive.

  • Writing Style

    Hyperbolic, Anticlimactic, Clever

    This is one of Shakespeare’s less complex plays. The writing doesn’t emphasize deep ideas... so much as exercise what a witty and clever guy William Shakespeare could be. (He could be insanely clever, btw.)

    The characters in the play tend to be rather melodramatic and excessive in their speech (though not necessarily in their feelings). For example, Beatrice and Benedick will never marry, Hero is the sweetest lady Claudio’s ever seen, and everything Dogberry says needs to be as formal and lofty as the King James Bible... even though he misuses words all over the place.

    The kind of grand speech the characters use, whether in their style or their fervor, is contrasted by the strange starts and stops of the action of the play. Disaster is constantly imminent and just barely averted, like Claudio losing Hero to Don Pedro, Benedick killing Claudio, or Beatrice deciding in the last minute to forsake her love for Benedick. 

    The best example of this purposeful anticlimax is in the lead-up to the actual climax. Hero is going to be publicly denounced at her wedding and the whole disaster is nearly averted by the bumbling Dogberry, who is ever so close to getting Leonato to talk to Borachio and discover the plot. 

    Even when the juicy bits of the scandal happen, they’re undone nearly as quickly as they arise. Borachio suddenly discovers his conscience and repents before Benedick can kill Claudio, and without leaving Hero much time to play dead. The swiftness with which the problems are resolved (and the arbitrary evil of the main villain, Don John) means you can’t take the problems all that seriously.

    The merit of Much Ado doesn’t lie so much in its fast paced drama. Instead, Much Ado is one of the Shakespeare comedies that celebrates Shakespeare’s cleverness with language. Much Ado About Nothing is a chance for Shakespeare to do a quick storyboard on plot, and let the dialogue of his best characters simply show off his dexterous wit and writing ability. Dogberry’s blunders are actually brilliant writing on Shakespeare’s part. The gentle wit of the play’s less able jokesters, like Margaret and Don Pedro, is admirably executed. 

    However, the dialogues between Benedick and Beatrice are where the big money is:

    BENEDICK Then is courtesy a turncoat. But it is certain I am loved of all ladies, only you excepted; and I would I could find in my heart that I had not a hard heart, for truly I love none. 

    BEATRICE A dear happiness to women! They would else have been troubled with a pernicious suitor. I thank God and my cold blood, I am of your humor for that. I had rather hear my dog bark at a crow than a man swear he loves me. (1.1.122-130)

    Those two characters run the English language in circles: their individual phrases are wicked smart, but their ability to play off each other is, at some points, sublime.

  • Symbolism, Imagery, Allegory

    Clothing

    Clothing as a symbol of status pops up quite a bit in the play. It often tells us about a person’s station in life. Interestingly, the play’s characters change their stances on love and their reputations as easily as if they were changing clothes, like Claudio vacillating on his love for Hero, or Hero’s reputation being clean, stained, and then clean again. When Beatrice teases Don Pedro about how she won’t take him for a husband, she says she’d need a less fancy man, as Don Pedro is too fine to wear on working days. Dogberry, who is hyperconscious of his status, and tries to prove he’s a gentleman by bringing up the fact that he has two gowns, and fine things to make himself handsome.

    Appearance is everything here – Benedick’s unkempt and mixed up clothing is what exposes him as a lovesick man; though he’s usually in the habit of a soldier. Finally in one of the most crucial and revealing conversations in the play – when Borachio comes clean to Conrade about the plot against Hero – there’s a conversation about fashion, which Conrade claims "wears out more apparel than the man." The idea is that fashions change too quickly, and this encourages otherwise reasonable men to get rid of perfectly good clothes. This capriciousness describes the fashion, but it also describes love in the play, as characters fall in and out of love and are rendered foolish by it. The point is love is a fashion, and people change love like they change clothes.

    Cuckold’s Horns

    Horns show up consistently in the play as a symbol of marriage (and the corollary notion of a husband being whipped in marriage). Remember, cuckolds were men who were married to unfaithful wives, and were generally long-suffering. Horns are an interesting symbol, because while they’re used in this context to denote a whipped guy, they’re also a thing of wild beasts. Don Pedro jokes about the "savage bull" with horns at the beginning of the play when Benedick refuses to marry, and again when Benedick has chosen to marry after all. The inevitable horns that come with marriage (remember Beatrice jokes that if God sent her a man, He’d have to send horns too) represents marriage as a process by which wild animals are tamed.

    Horns are joked about throughout the play, but over the course of the action they become less fearsome as the characters come around to viewing horns as an ornament of love. At the end of the play, Claudio promises that Benedick will have horns, but they’ll be gold-tipped, like Jove’s horns were during his lusty conquest of Europa. Horns are thus a thing of wild animals, but as the characters learn to accept and be excited about marriage, they come to symbolize the bawdy pleasantries of marriage.

    Noting

    The title of the play, given that "nothing" was pronounced as "noting" in Shakespeare’s day, clues us in to the fact that noting is central to all of the action. Noting is a motif throughout the entire play in the form of observation (when Claudio asks if Benedick noted Hero, when Friar Francis says he’s been busy noting Hero at the wedding, etc.), through music (as Benedick jokes about sheep’s guts as strings on an instrument, when Balthasar plays his notes, etc.), and also through written notes (like the letters that ultimately reveal Benedick and Beatrice’s love at the end of the play).

    Ultimately, the play revolves around misnoting – the problem of people wrongly interpreting what another person does or says. Benedick and Beatrice are manipulated into noting false conversations about their mutual love, and Don John sets up Claudio and Don Pedro to wrongly observe (or misnote) Hero’s loyalty. The play constantly points out the difficulty of observing correctly, as observation is always subject to interpretation, and interpretation is often wrong. This doesn’t mean that misnoting can’t have good outcomes – after all, Beatrice and Benedick do get together as a result of it – but Shakespeare is essentially laughing at the follies that result from misnoting.

  • Narrator Point of View

    Though all works of literature present the author’s point of view, they don’t all have a narrator or a narrative voice that ties together and presents the story. This particular piece of literature does not have a narrator through whose eyes or voice we learn the story.

  • Booker's Seven Basic Plots Analysis

    Much Ado About Nothing doesn’t fall into the traditional rubric of comedies as set up by our man Mr. Booker—instead, Much Ado blends two types of comedies with its two plots. Way to buck tradition, Much Ado.

    Plot #1: The Troublemaker (Hero and Claudio's Plot)

    One type of Booker’s comedy involves a dark character that ends up causing problems for everybody. This could describe Don John’s involvement in the main plot of Hero and Claudio. However, Don John is not a deep or powerful enough villain to really make the whole play fall into this category—Don John doesn’t impact every action in the play. The play’s main conflict is more driven by Claudio’s hatred that is provoked by Don John’s deception than Don John’s deception itself.

    Hero and Claudio have their love thwarted by Don John. He tried to foil their love once (by suggesting to Claudio that Don Pedro was wooing Hero for himself) and then succeeds in destroying their (first) wedding by creating a fake scene of Hero’s disloyalty. Once his treachery is revealed, Hero’s name is cleared, Claudio realizes his error, and Hero and Claudio are free to come together again for a happy union.

    Plot #2: The Mixup (Beatrice and Benedick's Plot)

    The other category of comedy defined in Booker’s rubric that captures the action in Much Ado About Nothing is the misunderstanding trope. In this model, there’s no actual villain trying to sabotage everything. Instead, the characters are plagued by misunderstandings or some hidden truth that needs to be revealed before there can be a resolution. This situation sums up the problem with Beatrice and Benedick—they hate each other, and need to realize that their mutual hatred is actually mutual luuurve.

    Beatrice and Benedick have no villain sabotaging them. They’re initially kept apart by their mutual hatred, they’re encouraged to get together by the manipulation of others, and finally they admit that they love each other. Once the cat’s out of the bag, they’re brought together happily, in spite of themselves.

  • Plot Analysis

    Initial Situation

    Claudio Likes Hero; Beatrice And Benedick Hate Each Other.

    Claudio announces that he noticed Hero before the war, but he was busy with war stuff. Now he can get busy with love stuff. Overall, he falls in love with Hero quickly. Beatrice and Benedick, by contrast, seem to have spent a long time developing their feelings towards each other. Beatrice alludes to some past interactions she may have had with Benedick that have soured her both on him and on love. Essentially, they hate each other fiercely... and this is only Act I.

    Conflict

    Claudio Worries That Don Pedro Has Stolen Hero; Benedick And Beatrice Are Told Of Each Other’s Love.

    Claudio hasn’t even properly announced his love for Hero and he’s already sure it's over. When everyone’s at the masquerade ball, and Don Pedro is wooing Hero in Claudio’s name, Don John slips over and plants the suggestion that Don Pedro is getting Hero for himself. Claudio becomes suspicious and immediately writes off his love for Hero and his friendship with Don Pedro. Worse, we realize he’s kind of a wuss for not even being willing to fight for the girl he loves.

    Some more conflict develops in the parallel plot of Beatrice and Benedick, in a kind of inside-out way. In a traditional plot, conflict happens when two people who love each other end up hating each other. In this case, once Hero and Claudio get their marriage stuff straightened out, all attention turns to getting Beatrice and Benedick to fall in love. They kind of start to—and what’s creating conflict is that this whole time they’ve hated each other, and now suddenly have to deal with the fact that they might be in love.

    Complication

    Don John Plots To Ruin Claudio And Hero’s Wedding; Benedick And Beatrice Are Sick With Love For Each Other.

    The inexplicably villainous Don John won’t give up just because he’s failed to ruin Hero and Claudio’s relationship once. Instead, he’s worked out a plan to frame Hero as disloyal, and he puts it into action by having Claudio and Don Pedro witness his little set up.

    In the meantime, our two favorite characters, Beatrice and Benedick, are falling in love. The problem is, they haven’t admitted it to each other yet, and instead it’s just ruining their personalities. Through the middle section of the play, both Beatrice and Benedick become dull and lose the spark we’ve come to appreciate about them, because they’re stuck in that unrequited-love phase. We may be kind of rooting for them to get together eventually, but their love is complicated by the possibility that it might make them boring and typical, thus robbing them of all the qualities that made them fall in love with each other in the first place.

    Climax

    Claudio Rejects Hero; Benedick Admits His Love For Beatrice; Beatrice Asks Benedick To Kill Claudio.

    First of all, this scene is climactic because it’s so out of character for Claudio. We’ve known Claudio up to this point to be kind of wimpy—he doesn’t stand up for himself when Benedick teases him for being whipped, he doesn’t have the cajones to tell Hero himself that he loves her, and he doesn’t even fight for Hero when he thinks he's lost her to Don Pedro. 

    Our notion of Claudio is blown open in the wedding scene, because he has fierce feelings—and acts on them. In fact, this is the first time he’s even engaged in a real conversation with Hero (when they decided they would get married, Hero didn’t say a single word). Claudio’s explosion, provoking the taciturn Hero to react, is kind of a big deal.

    This scene is also climactic because of what actually happens. Claudio loses a wife, Leonato loses his daughter and his reputation, and Hero loses her "life"—or at least her ability to have a normal life from now on. High drama, all over the place.

    As far as Beatrice and Benedick go, this same scene is a climax in their relationship too. All of this turmoil has put pressure on Benedick to reveal his love, especially because of how upset Beatrice is. The only thing that can comfort her has to be as powerful as the thing that’s upset her—and the straight declaration of love from Benedick is strong enough to startle. 

    Beatrice responds equally climactically—she’s full of fury, and demands that Benedick kill Claudio if he loves her. She won’t hear reason, so Benedick agrees to challenge his friend to a duel.

    Suspense

    Don John’s Plot Must Be Revealed; Hero’s Name Must Be Cleared; Benedick Challenges Claudio.

    All of the characters are so emotional right now that you’re on the edge of your seat, or your page. The plot has gotten so thick that unraveling is going to be a challenge. Whatever the solution is, it’s going to have to resolve a lot of issues: Hero will have to come back to life publicly; Claudio and Don Pedro have to be redeemed as decent people; Don John and his henchmen have to be brought to justice; and the rift between Benedick and Claudio has to be sealed. 

    Also, Beatrice and Benedick’s new-found love is going to have to survive the strain of the "murder" of Hero and the impending attempted murder of Claudio.

    Denouement

    Borachio Reveals The Plot; Claudio Relents And Repents And Plans To Marry Leonato’s Mystery Niece; Benedick No Longer Has To Challenge Claudio.

    Everything is nearly fixed when Borachio admits the whole plot, full of apology, to Don Pedro and Claudio. Faced directly with their misjudgment, Claudio and Don Pedro feel really, really bad, and have to try to make it up to Leonato. Leonato relaxes the whole situation by giving Don Pedro and Claudio an out—mourning Hero publicly to clear her name publicly, and Claudio will get a second chance at being in Leonato’s family by marrying his mystery niece.

    Further, we know there’s no real harm done in the relationship between Hero and Claudio; Claudio will be excused for having simply made an error in judgment, so Hero won’t hate him forever. Everyone’s just happy the girl can get married again, so it’s like all systems are back to the status quo. Also, Benedick no longer has to kill Claudio, which significantly relaxes everyone.

    Conclusion

    Everyone Gets Married.

    With everything cleared up, Hero reveals she is still living and still as innocent as on her original wedding day. Benedick and Beatrice approach their conclusion on a more tense note; Benedick proved his love for Beatrice by choosing her (and justice) over his friends, but their relationship is put to the test by Benedick’s public declaration of love. 

    To admit that they no longer hate each other, and that they actually might be in love, is a huge concession for Beatrice and Benedick. Though they started the play hating each other, and they’ve come around to happily loving each other, this scene of publicly getting together makes us certain that these two characters won’t be tamed by domesticity, but will actually preserve all of the acidity we love about them. Finally, it’s tacked on to the end of the play that Don John has been caught and is awaiting his punishment, which reminds us that there is justice in the world.

  • Three Act Plot Analysis

    Act I

    Don Pedro's army arrives at Leonato's estate in Messina, where Claudio immediately falls in love with Hero. While Benedick and Beatrice once again engage in their long-running war of wits, Don Pedro wins Hero's love (and promise of marriage) in Claudio's name.

    Act II

    The cast attempts to trick Beatrice and Benedick into falling in love. Don John sets up a rendezvous with Borachio and Margaret (dressed in Hero's clothing), so that Claudio and Don Pedro "witness" Hero's unchaste, proposal-breaking behavior. Soon after, Dogberry and Verges arrest Borachio and Conrad after listening to the two recount Don John's evil plan. The wedding goes as Don John planned, however; Claudio leaves Hero at the alter after denouncing her.

    Act III

    Convinced of Hero's innocence, the Friar proposes a plan: start a rumor that Hero has died, in hopes that Claudio will remember his love for her. Beatrice and Benedick admit their mutual adoration. Dogberry and Verges bring Don John's evil scheme to light, and Don John flees. Ashamed of his misguided denouncement of Hero, Claudio agrees to marry Leonato's "niece" since Hero is "dead." At the wedding, the masked niece reveals her true identity, Hero; Beatrice and Benedick agree to marry; everyone is happy.

  • Allusions

    Literature, Philosophy, and Mythology

    Troilus (5.2.31) – as in Troilus and Cressida
    Leander (5.2.30) – as in Hero and Leander
    Europa and Jove (5.4.46-47)
    Ovid: Metamorphoses viii – Philemon and his wife, Baucis, entertained Jove in their peasant cottage, not knowing that their guest was Jove (2.1.94-95)
    Hercules (2.1.250, 2.1.356, 3.3.136, 4.1.335)
    Ate (2.1.252) – goddess of mischief and discord
    Cupid (1.1.39-40, 1.1.180, 1.1.249, 1.1.265, 2.1.376, 3.1.23, 3.1.112, 3.2.10)
    Diana (4.1.58)
    Venus (4.1.61)
    Adam (1.1.254, 2.1.63, 2.1.248) – as in the Biblical Adam and Eve