Much ado about nothing is among the pleasantest of Shakespeare's plays. It was written about 1599 and is the first of a cluster of three comedies, written in the space of a year or so, that represent Shakespeare's comic genius at its height.
… Don Pedro of Aragon …
The play opens with Leonato, the governor of Messina, speaking with a Messenger who has just brought him a letter. Leonato says:
I learn in this letter that Don Pedro of Aragon
comes this night to Messina.
– Act I, scene i, lines 1-2
Messina is one of the principal cities of the island of Sicily. It is located in the northeastern comer of that triangular island just at the narrow strait that separates Sicily from Italy. As for Aragon, that is a medieval kingdom that was located in eastern Spain (see page I-526).
But what was Don Pedro of Aragon doing in Sicily?
Well, through much of the Middle Ages Sicily had been ruled by the German emperors. In 1266, however, it fell into the hands of the French dynasty of Anjou.
In 1282 the Sicilians grew tired of this Angevin rule. On March 30, just as the church bells were ringing for the sunset prayers called vespers, the Sicilians rose in concert and killed every Frenchman they could find. This event, the "Sicilian Vespers," ended Angevin rule on the island.
The last German ruler of Sicily, prior to the advent of the Angevins, had had only one surviving child, a daughter. She had married the King of Aragon, and the Sicilians considered this Aragonese King to be the natural successor to the crown. They Invited him to come to Sicily. He did so and by 1285 had established himself firmly as ruler of Sicily, beginning a dynasty that was to continue for over five hundred years.
The Aragonese King who took over in Sicily was Pedro III (also known as Pedro the Great). Naturally, he was not the Don Pedro of Aragon who figures in Much Ado About Nothing, a play which is completely and entirely unhistorical. Undoubtedly, however, it was his name that floated into Shakespeare's mind when he needed one for the prince.
… a young Florentine…
It is quickly established that there has been a battle which Don Pedro has won and which has been practically bloodless. Leonato says:
/ find here that Don Pedro hath bestowed
much honor on a young Florentine called Claudio.
– Act I, scene i, lines 9-11
Florence was the leading city of Renaissance Italy, the medieval analogue of ancient Athens. Shakespeare never set the scene of one of his plays in that city, but he knew its reputation and worth. Simply by making Claudio a Florentine he was informing the audience that the man was intelligent and gallant.
… of Padua
Leonato has a daughter, Hero, beautiful and shy, and a niece named Beatrice, merry and impudent. The latter is trying to make herself heard and finally manages to say:
I pray you, is Signior Mountanto
returned from the wars or no?
– Act I, scene i, lines 29-30
Mountanto is the name of a style of fencing thrust and the implication is that the gentleman in question is a great swashbuckler, presumably a phony, whose valor is all talk.
The Messenger doesn't know whom she means and her cousin, Hero, must identify him, saying:
My cousin means Signior Benedick of Padua.
– Act I, scene i, line 34
Padua is the scene of much of the action of The Taming of the Shrew (see page I-447). The Messenger assures the company that Benedick is alive and well, and Beatrice breaks out at once in a flood of slander against him. Leonato feels it necessary to explain this away and says to the Messenger:
You must not, sir, mistake my niece.
There is a kind of merry war betwixt
Signior Benedick and her. They never meet
but there's a skirmish of wit between them.
– Act I, scene i, lines 58-61
And indeed, it is this "merry war" that is the heart of the play and that will keep it alive and popular forever.
… my dear Lady Disdain …
In come the warriors, including Don Pedro, Claudio, and Benedick. There is a gracious and good-humored conversation with Leonato in the course of which Benedick carefully manages to fail to see Beatrice.
Finally, Beatrice is forced to address him and says:
1 wonder that you will still [always] be talking,
Signior Benedick; nobody marks [listens to] you.
– Act I, scene i, lines 112-13
Whereupon in the most lordly way possible, Benedick turns, looks at the lady with a vague surprise, and says:
What, my dear Lady Disdain!
Are you yet living?
– Act I, scene i, lines 114-15
And the battle is joined.
… the Prince your brother. ..
But not quite all is merry. Among the party is a sour-visaged gentleman who has thus far said nothing. Leonato greets him too, and says:
Let me bid you welcome, my lord;
being reconciled to the Prince your brother,
I owe you all duty.
– Act I, scene i, lines 149-51
He is speaking to Don John, the Prince's illegitimate brother, who has apparently been in rebellion against Don Pedro. In fact, that was what the battle was about. Don John lost, apparently ignominiously, with Claudio particularly notable on the winning side, and the loser has had to reconcile himself with his brother. No wonder he looks so sour.
Nothing of this is historical, but Shakespeare may well have thought of the name because King Philip II of Spain (who died only a year or so before Much Ado About Nothing was written and who had ruled Sicily) had happened to have an illegitimate brother widely known as Don John of Austria.
The historical Don John was, to be sure, nothing at all like the Don John of the play and had never rebelled against his brother. In fact, the historical Don John is best known for his victory over the Turks at the Battle of Lepanto and then for his death, not long afterward, at the age of thirty-one in 1578.
… possessed with a fury. ..
Claudio has fallen in love with Hero and as is natural for a lover, he wants his friend, Benedick, to praise her. Benedick, a very sensible young man, refuses to be poetic about it. He says:
There's her cousin, and she were not possessed with a fury,
exceeds her as much in beauty
as the first of May doth the last of December.
– Act I, scene i, lines 184-86
The Furies were creatures of Greek legend who were vengeful spirits that pursued those guilty of great crimes, and were probably personifications of the madness that stemmed from guilt and remorse. It is clear, though, that despite Benedick's unkind characterization of Beatrice he is very much struck by her-and we might guess that Beatrice wouldn't take so much trouble to tongue-lash Benedick if she weren't equally struck by him.
In short, the two are in love and everyone in the play and in the audience knows it-except for Beatrice and Benedick themselves.
… called Adam
Don Pedro is on Claudio's side, however, and the two of them then proceed to tease Benedick over his confirmed bachelorhood. They assure him he will fall in love and marry someday, and Benedick swears mightily that he won't, saying:
// / do, hang me in a bottle like a cat
and shoot at me; and he that hits me,
let him be clapped on the shoulder
and called Adam.
– Act I, scene i, lines 248-50
The reference is to a north English ballad, famous in Shakespeare's time, concerning three master archers who lived in a forest in the extreme north of England. These were Clym of the dough, William of Cloudesly, and Adam Bell, and any of the three might be used as a way of signifying a champion archer. In this case, it is Adam who gets the nod.
"… Benedick the married man"
Finally, Benedick's protestations reach a climax and succeed in adding a word to the language. He says that if he ever gets married, they can make a sign on which he is to be caricatured and
let them signify under my sign
"Here you may see Benedick the married man."
– Act I, scene i, lines 257-58
"Benedick" is but a slightly corrupt form of "Benedict," and either is now used with a small letter (a benedict) to signify sometimes a bachelor, sometimes a married man. The most appropriate use, however, is for a long-time bachelor who is newly married.
… his quiver in Venice
Benedick's companions are not impressed and feel that he will pay for his scorning of love. Don Pedro warns him laughingly:
… if Cupid have not spent all his quiver in Venice,
thou wilt quake for this shortly.
– Act I, scene i, lines 261-62
Venice, as a great trading center (see page I-499), would be crowded with sailors from all lands, eager for the use of women after the Spartan life aboard ship, and the city would therefore be considered a center of sexual license.
… born under Saturn…
All is going along marvelously well. Don Pedro promises to use his influence to see to it that Claudio and Hero get married. Leonato learns of it and is delighted.
There is only one exception. Don John, the defeated brother, is miserable. His companion, Conrade, tries to cheer him up, but fails. Don John is even surprised that Conrade should try. He says:
/ wonder that thou being
(as thou say'st thou art) born under Saturn,
goest about to apply a moral medicine…
– Act I, scene iii, lines 10-12
In astrological thinking, each person is considered as having been born under the influence of a particular planet, which governs his personality in some fashion related to its own properties.
Mercury is the fastest moving of the planets, and to be "mercurial" is to be gay, volatile, and changeable.
Venus, named for the goddess of love, is related to "venereal," which can mean loving or lustful. The word has fallen out of use because of its association with diseases such as syphilis.
Mars, the ruddy planet named for the god of war, has an obvious connection with "martial."
Jupiter (Jove) is the second brightest of the planets and is named for the chief of the gods. It is considered most fortunate to be born under it and to be "jovial" is to be merry, good-natured, and sociable.
Saturn is considered to produce effects opposite to those of Jupiter. It is the slowest moving of the planets and is named for a particularly ancient god. Those born under his influence are therefore "saturnine," that is, grave, gloomy, and slow. Don John himself is portrayed as a saturnine individual.
The name "Conrade" has a connection with Sicily, by the way. The last of the German emperors to rule as King of Sicily was Conrad IV, who reigned from 1250 to 1254. His son, Conradin, attempted to retain hold over Sicily but was defeated and beheaded in 1268 by Charles of Anjou, who set up the Angevin dynasty that was to end fourteen years later in the Sicilian Vespers.
But another of Don John's companions, Borachio, comes in with the news that a match is being arranged between Claudio and Hero. Don John brightens. He feels a particular hate for Claudio, who was so prominent in the battle that defeated Don John, and if some mischief can be worked up at the young man's expense, so much the better.
… apes into hell
Leonato is planning a masked dance that night as an amusement for the royal company he is hosting, and during the preparations, Beatrice is her usual merry self, as busily denying she will have a husband as Benedick had earlier been denying he would have a wife. She even looks forward, with some cheer, to the traditional punishment Elizabethans imagined for old maids. She will not marry and
Therefore I will even take sixpence
in earnest of the berrord
and lead his apes into hell.
– Act II, scene i, lines 39-41
The "berrord" is the "bearward" or animal keeper. She will accept a com from him as wages and do a job for him, which is to lead his apes into hell (see page I-454).
… Philemon's roof.. .
Don Pedro intends to take the occasion of the masked ball to smooth Claudio's path to Hero. He will dance with Hero, pretending to be Claudio. Drawing her to one side, and speaking more gallantly than Claudio himself might be able to, he will win her love for his friend.
When Don Pedro dances with Hero, she naturally tries to find out who is under the mask, and he says:
My visor is Philemon's roof;
within the house is Jove.
– Act II, scene i, lines 95-96
This refers to a tale told in Ovid's Metamorphoses (see page I-8).
Jupiter (Jove) and Mercury once traveled through Asia Minor in disguise to test the hospitality of its inhabitants. They were treated discourteously everywhere until they came to the lowly cottage of an old, poor couple, Philemon and Baucis. Their welcome there was so hospitable that they offered to grant the couple whatever their wish might be. Their only wish was that they might die together, without warning, at the same moment, so that neither should know one moment of the pain of living without the other. It was granted.
Don Pedro, in referring to himself as Jove, may be tempted at the moment to speak for himself rather than for Claudio. Indeed, Don John, for sheer mischief, will take the occasion soon to get the news to Claudio that Don Pedro had indeed spoken for himself (though, in the end, he did not).
… the "Hundred Merry Tales"…
Benedick dances with Beatrice at the ball and, under the cover of anonymity, tells her of certain anonymous slanders he has heard concerning her. She repeats the information and guesses the informer, saying:
That I was disdainful,
and that I had my good wit
out of the "Hundred Merry Tales."
Well, this was Signior Benedick that said so.
– Act II, scene i, lines 128-30
The "Hundred Merry Tales" was a popular, and therefore well-worn, collection of funny stories, most of them coarse. It would be equivalent, in modern terms, to saying that she had gotten her witty sayings out of Joe Miller's joke book.
It was a deadly thing to say to Beatrice and in vengeance (she probably knew very well with whom she was dancing) she floods Benedick with cruel remarks which he cannot counter.
… the infernal Ate.. .
Benedick has so much the worse of it on this occasion that after the dance he boils over with frustration, and says to Don Pedro concerning Beatrice:
She would have made Hercules have turned spit,
yea, and have cleft his club to make the fire too.
Come, talk not of her.
You shall find her the infernal Ate in good apparel.
– Act II, scene i, lines 250-54
She is such a shrew, in other words, that even Hercules would bow before her in fear.
As a matter of fact, the image is not too far removed from one of the legends concerning Hercules. As a punishment for some crime, Hercules was condemned to serve Omphale, Queen of Libya, for three years. She chose to have him do the woman's work about the house, spinning, cleaning, making beds, while she wore his lion's skin and carried his club.
As for Ate, she is the Greek goddess of vengeance and mischief, who created so much trouble even among the gods that she was cast out of heaven and condemned to live on earth, where, Benedick implies, she has taken on the likeness of Beatrice.
… the great Cham's beard…
And when Beatrice enters, Benedick bounds to his feet at once and demands to be sent away. He says to Don Pedro melodramatically:
Will your Grace command me any service
to the world's end? I will go on
the slightest errand now to the Antipodes
that you can devise to send me on;
I will fetch you a toothpicker now
from the furthest inch of Asia;
bring you the length of Prester John's foot;
fetch you a hair off the great Cham's beard;
do you any embassage to the Pygmies-rather
than hold three words' conference with this harpy.
– Act II, scene i, lines 261-69
The Antipodes ("with the feet pointed opposite") is a term invented by the Greeks. When their philosophers worked out the fact that the earth was spherical, there appeared at once the odd and paradoxical situation that people might live on the other side of the earth, with their feet pointed upward (from the standpoint of the Greeks).
Since the temperature rose as one went south, some Greek philosophers suggested there was a burning zone about the equator that men could not pass and that the world of the Antipodes (the Southern Hemisphere) could never be reached.
(By Shakespeare's time this was shown to be false, but the Antipodes remained as a symbol of the distant and unattainable.)
Prester John ("John the Priest") was a mythical monarch whose existence was widely accepted in the later Middle Ages. He was supposed to be a Christian king of immense power, with wide dominions in Asia, a king who had conquered the pagan regions and converted them to Christianity (hence his title).
There were indeed Christians in the Far East. These were the Nestorian Christians, a heretical sect that had been driven out of the East Roman Empire in the fifth century and had found haven in Persia and beyond. They penetrated to central Asia and China and, for a while in the twelfth century, were influential among the Mongol tribes who were gaining power.
In 1145 a Syrian bishop, Hugh of Gebal, brought the tale to the papal court. He spoke of a great Christian monarch in the East, thus combining a Mongol conqueror (who was not a Christian) with the Nestorians (who were not kings). In 1177 Pope Alexander III wrote a letter to this supposed Prester John, suggesting an alliance against the Moslems. The messenger carrying the letter never returned and nothing is known of his fate. Nevertheless, people continued to believe in the myth of a great Christian empire somewhere beyond the horizon.
In 1206 the greatest of the Mongols took the name of Genghis Khan, and he proved a Prester John indeed, though not a Christian one. For a bloody and unbelievable half century the Mongols expanded with unheard-of speed and built the largest continuous land empire the world had yet seen. In 1240 they even penetrated central Europe, defeating all armies sent against them.
Under Kublai Khan, the grandson of Genghis Khan, they reached their height. In the late thirteenth century the Italian traveler Marco Polo spent seventeen years at the court of Kublai Khan and thereafter wrote an immensely popular account of his travels. The memory of the Khans (or Chams) remained green, therefore, and it is the beard of the Mongol ruler which Benedick offers to pluck (though by Shakespeare's time only remnants of the Mongol Empire remained).
The Pygmies were a dwarfish race first mentioned in Homer's Iliad, and were reputed to live south of Egypt (see page I-63). The Harpies, in Greek legend, were originally symbols of the storm wind, but they were eventually pictured as winged birds of prey with women's heads. They were described as horrible, filthy creatures that snatched food away from men's tables, soiling and fouling what they could not take.
… like favorites
Having said all this, Benedick stalks off in a huff, to Beatrice's amusement. The rest of the group are happy too, as it quickly turns out that Don Pedro has wooed on his friend's behalf, and successfully. Soon there will be a wedding between Claudio and Hero.
Don Pedro, having listened to Benedick and Beatrice berate each other, suddenly thinks it would be delightful to trick them into falling in love. It is quite obvious to everyone that they are actually in love and it is just necessary to find some face-saving way of getting each to admit it
Don Pedro, Leonato, and Claudio therefore seize an opportunity when Benedick is within earshot, to pretend they don't know they are being overheard, and to begin a long, circumstantial tale about Beatrice being in love with Benedick and being afraid to show it. They say that she may die of it.
Benedick is quite incredulous at first, but the three are most convincing, and, in his heart, he wants to believe, of course. So it comes about that he decides he can't very well let the poor girl die and he might as well save her life by loving her.
Next, Beatrice must get the same treatment. Hero and a lady in waiting, Ursula, will talk in the garden and Beatrice will be lured there to overhear them. Hero gives directions, saying that the talk will be in a shady place where the plants
Forbid the sun to enter-like favorites,
Made proud by princes, that advance their pride,
Against that power that bred it,
– Act III, scene i, lines 9-11
Considering the year in which the play was written, this sounds like an unmistakable reference to the Earl of Essex (see page I-120), who had been the favorite of Queen Elizabeth and who was now falling out of favor and taking it hard. Soon he was to attempt rebellion against the Queen and be beheaded for his pains.
Shakespeare was patronized by Essex and was surely sympathetic to him (see page I-119). In fact, there is every reason to suppose he did not forgive Elizabeth for executing the Earl, and when Queen Elizabeth died he remained mute, something spitefully noted by the poet Henry Chettle, who wrote an elegy in the dead monarch's honor.
And yet here is this passage in Much Ado About Nothing. We might suppose that Shakespeare, not one to risk his neck, or his living either, fearful that his connection with Essex might bring harm down upon his head, inserted this passage as an indication of disapproval of Essex. Such an indication might place him on the right side and out of trouble.
The girls' stratagem works and Beatrice is tricked into love out of pity, just as Benedick was.
… they that touch pitch…
Everything is going better and better, but there is Don John even yet His earlier bit of mischief had miscarried and he wants something more effective. His companion, Borachio, has an idea. Why not frame Hero? He can arrange things so that he himself will woo Hero's lady in waiting Margaret at Hero's window. Don Pedro and Claudio will be allowed to overhear and be made to believe that Hero is a creature of light behavior who bestows her favors on anyone.
This vile plot is carried through offstage and works, but almost at once the nemesis of the plotters appears in the shape of comic constables, who mangle the English language with every sentence.
Their chief is Dogberry, epitome of the cowardly policeman who is willing to make an arrest only if there is no risk in it. Thus, when asked by a watchman whether they may arrest any thieves they encounter, Dogberry prudently says:
Truly, by your office you may;
but I think they that touch pitch will be defiled…
– Act III, scene iii, lines 57-58
The proverb is biblical; at least it occurs in the apocryphal Book of Ecclesiasticus (13:1), where it is written: "He that toucheth pitch shall be defiled therewith," an analogy that warns against evil companionship.
… a true drunkard.. .
Two newly sworn watchmen remain behind and almost at once Conrade and Borachio enter. Borachio, having successfully carried through the plot, is bubbling over with glee because he has earned a thousand ducats from Don John as a result. Borachio says to Conrade:
Stand thee close then under this penthouse
for it drizzles rain, and I will,
like a true drunkard, utter all to thee.
– Act III, scene iii, lines 104-6
It is to be presumed that Don John's companions are Aragonese and speak Spanish. Shakespeare makes no point of it in the play but Bora-chio's reference to himself as a drunkard is interesting, since the Spanish word borracho means just that.
… god Bel's priests.. .
Borachio is triumphant over the ease with which appearance was mistaken for reality (Margaret at the window for Hero). Through him, Shakespeare strikes out at one of his favorite targets-changing fashion. Borachio denounces fashion for making mankind ridiculous:
Sometimes fashioning them
like Pharaoh's soldiers in the reechy [grimy]
painting, sometimes like god Bel's priests in the old church window,
sometimes like the shaven Hercules in the smirched worm-eaten tapestry…
– Act III, scene iii, lines 134-38
The new fashions only succeed, in other words, in making men look like one variety or another of ancient figures so that those fashions don't even have the virtue of being really new.
The reference to "Bel's priests" brings in another apocryphal book of the Bible. In this case it is Bel and the Dragon, in which the prophet Daniel proved to King Cyrus of Persia that the idol Bel was merely an inanimate object. The priests of Bel pretended that the idol consumed food and wine brought to it by the faithful each day, and Daniel showed that it was the priests themselves who ate and drank.
… Count Comfect.. .
The watchmen abandon Dogberry's caution and, like valiant men, promptly arrest Conrade and Borachio. Dogberry and his chief assistant, the aged Verges, go to Leonato to acquaint him with the conspiracy against his daughter. Between their wordiness and Leonato's haste to be on with the wedding preparations, communication fails and the plot, which ought to have been scotched, is not.
At the wedding ceremony, Claudio, in the most brutal manner, scornfully refuses to accept Hero, accusing her of immorality. Sadly, Don Pedro confirms this.
Leonato is half convinced, Benedick is puzzled and confused, and Hero faints. Beatrice, of course, is instantly and entirely on the side of Hero.
The Friar, who had been performing the marriage ceremony, suggests (very much in the manner of Friar Laurence in Romeo and Juliet) that the family pretend Hero is dead till the matter can be straightened out. Her supposed death will produce remorse in Claudio and Don Pedro and make them the readier to accept her innocence if the evidence points to it; while if she turns out to be really guilty, her supposed death would hide her shame and make it easier to have her quietly put in a nunnery.
Beatrice, furious, is in no mood, however, for lengthy investigations. She wants direct action. Poor Benedick, confessing his love for her, can scarcely get two words out at a time. Beatrice rages her contempt for Don Pedro and Claudio. She says:
Princes and counties!
Surely, a princely testimony, a goodly count.
Count Comfect; a sweet gallant surely!
– Act IV, scene i, lines 313-15
"Comfect" is candy (as in our modern "confectionary"), and Beatrice is sneering at the fault manliness of those who could treat a young girl so cruelly.
Beatrice has only one small demand of Benedict; that he kill Claudio. Benedick doesn't want to, but he cannot stand against Beatrice's impetuous fire; gloomily, he goes off to challenge Claudio.
… a calf's head and a capon …
Quietly Benedick challenges Claudio to a duel, out of the hearing of Don Pedro. Claudio, however, can scarcely take his old, bantering friend seriously. He insists on thinking it is some sort of joke and says to Don Pedro (who has overheard the conversation imperfectly and asks if Claudio is being invited to dinner):
… he hath bid me to a calf's head and a capon;
the which if I do not carve most curiously,
say my knife's naught.
Shall I not find a woodcock, too?
– Act V, scene i, lines 153-56
They are all items of food; but calves, capons, and woodcocks are all common symbols of stupidity too. Claudio is still wondering if Benedick is advancing some stupid joke. But Benedick insists on being grim, and stalks off after insulting Claudio unmistakably and formally leaving the service of Don Pedro.
The plot is breaking down, however. Not only does Benedick inform Don Pedro that his brother, Don John, has fled Messina (a suspicious act made necessary, presumably, by the arrest of Conrade and Borachio), but the foolish Dogberry has managed to extract a confession from the villains.
When the truth is out, Don Pedro and Claudio are prostrate with remorse and guilt. Leonato demands a simple recompense; that Claudio marry a niece of his that looks very much like the supposedly dead Hero. In deep contrition, Claudio agrees at once, and, of course, the "niece" turns out to be Hero herself. All are reconciled, right down to Claudio and Benedick.
… all Europa. ..
Now it is Benedick's turn. He will marry soon and subject himself to the dangers of the horns of cuckoldry after all. Claudio laughingly says:
Tush, fear not, man! We'll tip thy horns with gold,
And all Europa shall rejoice at thee,
As once Europa did at lusty Jove
When he would play the noble beast in love.
– Act V, scene iv, lines 44-47
There is a play on words here between Europa, meaning the continent of Europe, and Europa, the princess whom Jove loved in the shape of a bull (see page I-44).
.. .in a consumption
It comes out now that both Beatrice and Benedick had fallen in love because each had been told the other was lovesick, but it no longer matters. Benedick saves face by saying:
Come, I will have thee; but, by this light,
I take thee for pity.
– Act V, scene iv, lines 92-93
And Beatrice answers (as usual) with interest:
… by this good day, I yield upon great persuasion,
and partly to save your life, for
I was told you were in a consumption.
– Act V, scene iv, lines 94-96
With that, they kiss and are clearly blissfully happy. And we may presume that the marriage will stay happy too. No doubt the "merry war" between them will continue and Beatrice' sharp tongue will continue to have the better of it, but what of that?
After all, "Beatrice" means "she who makes happy" and "Benedick" means "blessed," and Shakespeare could not have chosen those names accidentally. Beatrice will make Benedick happy and he will be blessed in her.
The play ends with the news that Don John has been caught, but punishment is deferred for the next day. Nothing will interfere with the gaiety of the end.