Shakespeare's Staging
Much Ado About Nothing
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Friday, 22 April 2005 06:15


Much Ado: California Shakespeare Theatre, 2003. Beatrice (Julie Eccles) mocks Benedick (Charles Shaw Robinson). Photo: courtesy Jay Yamada.


Much Ado About Nothing is celebrated for its contentious pair of lovers, Beatrice and Benedick (2.3.20, 2.3.21, 2.3.22, 2.3.23, 2.3.25, 2.3.26; 3.2.33), whose mutual skirmishes are resolved in shared defense of Beatrice's friend Hero, slandered by her fiancé, Claudio, friend of Benedick. The plot involves a series of contrived overhearings (or "notings"—hence the title) which foster the love of Beatrice and Benedick (1.8.2, 1.8.3, 1.8.4), but mislead Claudio (see the inn scene in Video Gallery). Critics censure the supposed central plot involving the undistinguished characters of Hero and Claudio (2.3.27, 2.3.28), but Shakespeare uses them merely as foils and catalysts of the more jaded, witty couple, who have provided the norm for most later literary love affairs evolving from seeming contentiousness, such as Mirabell and Millamant in William Congreve's comedy The Way of the World or Elizabeth and Darcy in Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice, and perhaps even Martha and George in Albee's Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (see the essay in H. M. Richmond, Shakespeare's Sexual Comedy). The distinctive setting in Messina bizarrely matches the locale of the paranoid victor over the Turks at Lepanto (1572), the Bastard Don John of Austria, who unexpectedly figures as the villain of the play (he first planned the Armada against England; see 11.12.9, 11.12.10). Some of the farcical humor derives from the incompetent police (forerunners of the Keystone Kops; see,,,; 6.2.8; and inn video) led by Dogberry (2.3.24), who resolve the lovers' misapprehensions; but the play's great delight is the progress of the affair between Beatrice and Benedick, which has been a favorite of leading performers (1.8.7, 1.8.8, 1.8.11, 1.8.12; 3.2.32, 3.2.34, 3.2.35, 6.2.9, 6.2.10), as famously illustrated by the enthusiastically revived production starring Antony Quayle and John Gielgud with various actresses: Diana Wynyard, Margaret Leighton, and Peggy Ashcroft (2.3.29). It was also the script for UC Berkeley performances at the rebuilt Shakespeare Globe Theatre in London (Gallery 8.4 and this clip in the video gallery). See also Gallery 14: Much Ado: Researching a Production History. ©HMR


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Much Ado About Nothing at Talkin' Broadway.

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The Clown Don Juan as portrayed by Velázquez. Courtesy of the Prado Museum.

The Audience and Much Ado

This play illustrates how aesthetically superior audience response is to that of many literary critics, who censure the play because of what they consider an inadequate main plot with weak characters, mechanically assuming Hero and Claudio to be the focus of the play. From the first, audiences perceived that the core of the play lies in the evolution in the relationship between Beatrice and Benedick, as Leonard Digges records in 1640: "let but Beatrice and Benedick be seen, lo in a trice the cockpit, galleries, boxes all are full." Don John's machinations are merely an incident in the complex sequence of events in their fascinatingly erratic love affair, important elements of which antedate the play's action, as Beatrice bluntly establishes in complaining of Benedick's jilting of her once before after he won her heart by playing for it "with false dice" (2.1.280), thus explaining how she can say to him "I know you of old" (1.1.145). Moreover, this antecedent involvement clearly persists in their preoccupation with each other, visible whenever they are both on stage together, so that the overhearings about their supposed mutual fixation merely intensify an existing preoccupation rather than initiating it.

In relation to the incidental theme of Don John/Hero/Claudio, that subplot clearly functions in the play as what film director Alfred Hitchcock frequently called the "MacGuffin": "a plot element that catches the viewer's attention or drives the plot of a work of fiction," thereby eliciting presentation of more important issues. For Hitchcock also observed that, even if the plot nominally revolves around it, "what the object specifically is, the audience don't care." This audience indifference to Hero's plight is evident at most performances of Much Ado, and particularly notable in the Quayle/Gielgud/Ashcroft series. Paradoxically such detachment is not inevitable: when Hero is played subtly it is clear that, just as his friends enjoy humiliating the smug Benedick, so Hero resents Beatrice's easy domination of her society. However, in elevating themselves to being "the only love-gods" (2.1.386) the conspirators risk meriting their own deception by Don John—so there is a certain symmetry in the deceptions, from which only Beatrice and Benedick emerge with some credit for their ultimate loyalty to each other and to Hero, despite the risks and humiliations involved. So to some extent an alert audience should perceive that Hero, Claudio, and Don Pedro all suffer the humiliating fate they try to inflict on Beatrice and Benedick. Moreover, the agency which resolves the potentially tragic situation is a group of supposedly unsophisticated watchmen. In this mixture of elements the play fulfills the classic specifications of tragicomedy, mixing classes, emotions, and dramatic effects from farce to pathos, but with a positive outcome, as required by Lope de Vega's aesthetic in The New Art of Writing Plays. © HMR


Much Ado: John Gilbert as Dogberry, 1855.

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