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Much Ado About Nothing by William…

Much Ado About Nothing (1600)

by William Shakespeare

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    Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen (Shuffy2)
    Shuffy2: Beatrice and Benedick and Lizzie and Darcy- there are some similarties! This is my favorite of Shakespeare's comedies! Two characters who love to spar with words, 2 couples who love each other, and a bad guy! Perfect mix...

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William Shakespeare

Much Ado About Nothing

Penguin, Paperback, [2005].

8vo. lxxv+137 pp. pp. Penguin Shakespeare. Edited with a Commentary [pp. 101-137] by R. A. Foakes, 1968. General Introduction by Stanley Wells, 2005 [vii-xvi]. Introduction [xxi-lvii], The Play in Performance [lix-lxviii], and Further Reading [lxix-lxxv] by Janette Dillon, 2005.

Written, c. 1598.
First published, 1600.
This edition of the text first published in the New Penguin Shakespeare, 1968.
Reprinted with new introductions in the Penguin Shakespeare, 2005.


General Introduction
The Chronology of Shakespeare's Works
The Play in Performance
Further Reading

Much Ado About Nothing
Act I, Scenes 1-3
Act II, Scenes 1-3
Act III, Scenes 1-5
Act IV, Scenes 1-2
Act V, Scenes 1-4

An Account of the Text


The Characters in the Play:

Don Pedro, Prince of Aragon
Benedick, of Padua; Claudio, of Florence: Young lords, companions of Don Pedro

Don John, Don Pedro's bastard brother
Borachio, Conrade: followers of Don John

Leonato, Governor of Messina
Antonio, his brother, an old man
Balthasar, a singer
Friar Francis, a priest

Hero, Leonato's daughter
Margaret, Ursula: attendants to Hero
Beatrice, an orphan, Leonato's niece

Dogberry, the Constable in charge of the Watch
Verges, the Headborough, Dogberry's partner in authority
A Sexton, and several Watchmen, under Dogberry's authority

A Boy, servant to Benedick
Antonio's son
Attendants and musicians in Leonato's household


By way of accident, that is after accidentally seeing Kenneth Branagh's highly entertaining movie, this was my introduction to Shakespeare's comedies on paper as well. All this happened quite some time ago. The fact that this review was put on hold is significant. Though a fine play of considerable merit, Much Ado About Nothing didn't live up to the shattering effect of Shakespeare's tragedies. Perhaps this is as it should be. But I don't think so. Comedy and tragedy are different sides of the same coin. There is no reason to suppose that one is inherently superior to the other. I do believe, however, that Will was a superior tragedian than he was a comedian.

The literary authorities insist on Much Ado About Nothing being among the Bard's finest creations in the ''genre'', but I do hope he improves on in it in his other attempts. Indeed, he does. Since my first encounter with Shakespearean comedy I have had two more with the same species, As You Like It and A Midsummer Night’s Dream. I found both, in their different ways, more entertaining and more stimulating than Much Ado.

Spoilers ahead!

Let me start with some problems. One of them is the usual: ridiculous plot. Now this is no surprise. Even Shakespeare's mighty tragedies are full of farcical elements such as eavesdropping, intercepted letters, faithful handkerchiefs and fantastic coincidences. And yet, much as I am willing to neglect such details, Claudio and Don Pedro are taken in far too easily by Don John and co. The whole debacle is just a little too preposterous. Othello's notorious handkerchief is a dramatic masterstroke in comparison.

There are other plot holes as big as the universe. The most notable, as noted in the notes, is Margaret’s involvement. In Act III, she is the unwitting cause of the ado; that she is a stupid and horny wench she may be forgiven. But one is bound to ask where she is during the tremendous first scene of Act IV, when she could easily explain, if not prevent, the whole thing. Sure, she would be ashamed (not much though, as evident from III.4.) that she was seduced by Borachio for that purpose, but it is her duty to save Hero, which is her mistress after all, the public shame. The same objection applies to Dogberry. Granted that he and his comrades from the Watch are not the brightest fellows out there, they could – should! – have prevented the debacle. There is a whole scene (III.5.) dedicated to their visit to Leonato’s house on the faithful day. They say nothing and the Governor, anxious to get to the wedding, cares not to inquire more carefully about the people who had been apprehended. Thus stupidity breeds tragedy. Only in this play, unlike Romeo and Juliet, the tragedy was averted.

What's more detrimental is that there are some decidedly dull moments. I suppose Dogberry is very funny on the stage, but on the page his verbosity, though of course deliberate, is nonetheless exhausting. And I wish Beatrice and Benedick had been just a tad less witty and less prone to punning. Their loquacity forced Shakespeare to produce some of his most turgid and clumsy prose. For example:

Benedick: 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.

Benedick: …only this commendation I can afford her, that were she other than she is, she were unhandsome; and being no other but as she is, I do not like her.

Beatrice: He that hath a beard is more than a youth, and he that hath no beard is less than a man; and he that is more than a youth is not for me, and he that is less than a man, I am not for him.

Beatrice: I took no more pains for those thanks than you take pains to thank me; if it had been painful, I would not have come.

I cannot imagine any possible way of saying these words on the stage (or the screen) that wouldn't sound laboured. At one place Benedick describes Beatrice as “huddling jest upon jest with such impossible conveyance” (II.1.224-5). This is precisely what both of them do a little too often. Don Pedro and Claudio are not entirely innocent in this respect, either.

However preposterous the plot and however tedious some of the banter, Shakespeare’s insight into his characters and the all-pervasive irony make the play worth studying on paper, stage and screen.

The gullibility of Beatrice and Benedick is not among the weaknesses of the plot. It is essential that they should be taken in as easily as in fact they are. They want to fall in love with each other. They need but the smallest prompting. This raises some interesting questions. Is their love real or is it a delusion? Could it be both? How much from the one and how much from the other? What are their chances to survive as a married couple? No easy questions these, but worth searching for some answers.

Their love seems real enough. Shakespeare, ever the painstaking craftsman, allows us to overhear their soliloquies after they swallow the bite. Both Benedick (II.3.215-38) and Beatrice (III.1.107-116) sound perfectly sincere on these occasions; indeed, Beatrice uncharacteristically lapses into blank verse, a fine example of expressive change in the speech. Both, however, are also ruled by vanity. They are afraid of seeming too proud in the eyes of others if they refuse the love that is offered to them. Deeply inside themselves, probably both understand that if they don’t take each other nobody else will take either. It is clear enough that the cynical jibes and the tirades against marriage are defence mechanisms. They are jealous of their independence.

It is a little disconcerting that this love needs a deception to bring it out. This is a popular stratagem in opera and is not necessarily a proof of false affection. Tristan and Isolde, who incidentally begin their relationship with animosity a la Benedick and Beatrice, need a magic love potion to unleash their feelings. Wagner mischievously leaves us to decide what would have happened if the lovers had drunk pure water. Mimi and Rodolfo in Puccini’s La Boheme also begin their love with a little “help from destiny”, staged by the male party in this case. Rodolfo finds Mimi’s key and quickly pockets it, then blandly lies to her and proceeds to more important matters like wooing. In the final act, Mimi reveals that she knew what had happened and gladly played along. The case of Benedict and Beatrice is similar but by no means identical. They are taken in by a third party and the revelation may not be beneficial.

In the final scene (V.4.), it is revealed to Beatrice and Benedict how they have been duped by their friends. Both declare that they love the other “no more than reason”, but passionate sonnets are produced and “A miracle! Here’s our hands against our hearts.” Benedick says he’ll take her “in pity”, she him in “friendly recompense”. All this must, of course, be played over the top. But how many jokes earlier in this play have a sharp edge that goes far deeper than the amusing surface? Quite a few! When Don Pedro notes that Benedick has a “February face” (IV.4.41), the editor tells me that our hero is still displeased by the sight of his former friends. This is possible. Benedick has challenged Claudio to a duel and discontinued his friendship with Don Pedro. But there is an alternative explanation, too. Just a few lines earlier he is informed by Leonato, in a curiously “enigmatical” way, about the trick that has been played on him. Now he ponders Leonato’s words and begins to realise that the whole thing is a sham. He doesn’t even see Don Pedro until he is addressed. If I were a director, this is how I would stage this moment.

Shakespearean comedy may be defined as a play that ends with a mass marriage and leaves you to contemplate the diverse fate of the couples. It is intriguing to speculate how the knowledge of their “romance” will affect the future of Beatrice and Benedict. What passes between them is more properly called affection. They may have been in love once, as alluded to by Beatrice in her “arioso” (II.1.255-8), but that is ancient history. Now they are, at best, good friends, linked by their caustic wit and little else. I would say the chances of their marriage surviving the knowledge of its foundations are fifty-fifty.

Claudio and Hero are a much simpler case. Their love is stronger and more likely to turn into lasting affection. Its foundations are made still more solid by the near-tragedy that marks their courtship. It is not a love at first sight. As Claudio makes it clear in one of his moments of wisdom (I.1.276-84), he knew Hero before he went to war with Don Pedro. Then he “looked upon her with a soldier’s eye”, but now that he has returned alive “thronging soft and delicate desires” come into his head. Considering what an idiot Claudio is, ready to believe the greatest nonsense at the smallest provocation, he has some of the wisest lines to speak (“Friendship is constant in all other things / Save in the office and affairs of love”; “Silence is the perfectest herald of joy. I were but little happy, if I could say how much.”). This discrepancy between speaking wisely and acting foolishly is either a supreme feat of characterisation or a complete failure. I tend towards the former hypothesis.

Don John is an early version of Iago, the difference being that he is much, much paler. But it’s a difference of degree rather than of kind. I don’t mean minor details like the false accusation of the virtuous heroine; that is incidental. I mean that he is a natural villain, or, in Auden’s words, a “practical joker”. This is a man who does bad things to other people, not for his personal advantage or revenge, but from pure love for mischief. When Don John learns from Borachio about the “intended marriage” between Hero and Claudio, his first reaction is the question “Will it serve for any model to build mischief on?” (I.3.42-43). Then, and only then, he declares that “that young upstart [Claudio] hath all the glory of my overthrow” (I.3.61-62). He decides on the mischief first, rationalises later; much like Iago’s equally bogus, but at first glance believable, speculations that Othello may have cuckolded him. The sheer pleasure that mischief gives to such people is what makes them so dangerous. As a general rule, they are amoral creatures and their idea of “mischief” is what normal people properly call “misery”.

It would be tedious to list all examples of Shakespearean irony that connect events, characters and even phrases. I will limit myself to a few favourite examples.

Claudio’s presumed repentance on hearing the news of Hero’s death is a brilliant example. In his notes, Mr Foakes tells us that the Friar said that “would do the trick”. So he did. But it didn’t. That’s not the reason for Claudio’s change of heart. He is informed twice of Hero’s dearth, first by Leonato (V.1.69; and Antonio a few lines later, 87-88) and then by Benedick (V.1.145-6), but he pays no attention at all; in the first case he is too insulted at being called a villain, in the second he is too concerned about Benedick’s challenge. Only when he is told of the false accusation and Hero’s innocence does Claudio thinks of his former bride, and of course pity overcomes him (“Sweet Hero…”). Friar Francis, much like Friar Laurence, is a romantic fool. Fortunately for the couples in this play, he is a far less prominent character.

Just as fine a touch of irony is Dogberry’s discovering almost too late that all the ado is after all about nothing. Borachio sums it up perfectly: “what your wisdoms could not discover, these shallow fools have brought to light” (V.1.221-3). It is perhaps not a very kind comment on noble princes like Don Pedro and Claudio that they, for all their nobility and wit, seem to be stupider than Dogberry and his watchmen, but there it is. The text is unambiguous about that.

In a way, virtually all characters become, ironically, victims of their own actions. Benedick, much to his credit, does not believe the accusations against Hero and remains on the stage in IV.1. after Don Pedro and Claudio leave. He perceptively observes that these gentlemen have “the very bent of honour” and, if Hero be innocent, it must be “John the bastard, / Whose spirits toil in frame of villanies”, that has misled them. Few lines later, having confessed his love to Beatrice, Benedick is “engaged” to challenge Claudio to a duel and kill him. Love has some strange effects on men! Or on women, for that matter, as Beatrice’s request shows. Don Pedro and Claudio, for their own part, learn that playing the “love-gods” is a rather dangerous game. If they had not played their naughty games, Benedick would not have revealed his love to Beatrice and Claudio would have remained unchallenged. Friar Francis may be the only character who escapes the almost deadly rapier of Shakespeare’s irony. He never learns that his melodramatic expectations about Claudio (“When he shall hear she died upon his words, / The idea of her life shall sweetly creep / Into his study of imagination”) are not fulfilled. This is itself a fine touch of irony.

Bernard Shaw once dismissed Much Ado as insignificant without Shakespeare’s “word-music” as Da Ponte’s libretto of Don Giovanni without Mozart’s music. He was being too harsh, as usual when he discussed the Bard. The play is better than that. It tells something important about timeless human predicaments that we ought to know, never mind the plot holes. On the other hand, Shaw was spot on that Beatrice and Benedick are not witty persons but a crusty old bachelor and a bitter old maid. You have to be patient with their tiresome “skirmish of wit”. But, truly, come to think of it, is not so much of our modern lives, both on and offline, much ado about nothing? “For man is a giddy thing, and this is my conclusion.” ( )
1 vote Waldstein | Nov 10, 2015 |
Love this play and love the rapport and verbal sparring between Benedict and Beatrice almost more than anything other Shakespearean dialogue ( )
  areadingmachine | Jul 6, 2015 |
To be honest, I don't remember much about this play. I think I read it in grade 11. But I couldn't be sure. Will have to reread it. ( )
  momma182 | Jun 23, 2015 |
By my troth, 'twas I indeed
That, marry, hath enjoyed much
It filleth in me the need
To enjoyeth puns and such
Romantics of wordplayers
Was virginal territory
Through the speakers and the sayers
of scribesmithery's glory
Appettite is whetted for more from The Bard
How could life without him have not been very hard? ( )
  MartinBodek | Jun 11, 2015 |
It's a perfectly good play, although the humor almost never works. Shakespeare is just not funny. ( )
  comfypants | Mar 3, 2015 |
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» Add other authors (124 possible)

Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Shakespeare, Williamprimary authorall editionsconfirmed
Brooke, C. F. TuckerEditorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Dennis, JohnIntroductionsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Dillon, Janettesecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Foakes, R. A.Editorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
McEachern, ClaireEditorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Shaw, ByamIllustratorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Stevenson, David L.Editorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Trenery, Grace R.Editorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Wright, Louis B.Editorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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I learn in this letter that Don Pedro of Aragon comes this night to Messina.
He wears his faith but as the fashion of his hat.
Silence is the perfectest herald of joy: I were but little happy, if I could say how much.
I thank God I am as honest as any man living that is an old man and no honester than I.
What a deformed thief this fashion is.
Is it not strange that sheep's guts should hale souls out of men's bodies?
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0743482751, Mass Market Paperback)

Folger Shakespeare Library

The world's leading center for Shakespeare studies

Each edition includes:

• Freshly edited text based on the best early printed version of the play

• Full explanatory notes conveniently placed on pages facing the text of the play

• Scene-by-scene plot summaries

• A key to famous lines and phrases

• An introduction to reading Shakespeare's language

• An essay by an outstanding scholar providing a modern perspective on the play

• Illustrations from the Folger Shakespeare Library's vast holdings of rare books

Essay by Gail Kern Paster

The Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington, D.C., is home to the world's largest collection of Shakespeare's printed works, and a magnet for Shakespeare scholars from around the globe. In addition to exhibitions open to the public throughout the year, the Folger offers a full calendar of performances and programs.

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Features information on Shakespeare's life and world, a history of notable productions of this famous comedy, and new dramatic criticism.

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