Much Ado About Nothing | Study Guide

William Shakespeare

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Much Ado About Nothing | Act 1, Scene 1 | Summary

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William Shakespeare divided Much Ado About Nothing into five acts. This study guide provides a summary and analysis of each scene within each act.

Summary

Much Ado About Nothing opens at the home of Leonato, the governor of Messina, Italy. A messenger brings word to him, his daughter, Hero, and his niece, Beatrice, that Don Pedro, the Spanish Prince of Aragon, is due to arrive any moment with his battalion. The warriors are returning home from war victorious, thanks in particular to young Claudio, who "hath borne himself beyond the promise of his age, doing in the figure of a lamb the feats of a lion." Also amongst Don Pedro's men will be Benedick, a young lord of Padua about whom Beatrice is particularly curious—and prickly. Although the messenger informs Benedick also performed well during battle, Beatrice twists his words into insults about Benedick. Leonato tells the messenger there is "a kind of merry war betwixt Signior Benedick" and Beatrice.

Don Pedro and his men arrive. They are warmly welcomed by Leonato, who invites them to stay for at least a month. Beatrice and Benedick immediately start their war of words, which will continue throughout the play. As Benedick insists he loves no one and will never marry, Beatrice vows, "I had rather hear my dog bark at a crow than a man swear he loves me." Benedick gets in one more jibe and ends the conversation, irking Beatrice.

The group disperses, leaving Benedick and Claudio alone. Claudio tells Benedick he is suddenly consumed with love for Hero, but Benedick can see the appeal of neither Hero nor the idea of marriage itself. Nevertheless Claudio is intent on making Hero his bride. Don Pedro returns and approves the match while Benedick rants about being "yoked" to another. This results in a lot of good-natured ribbing from Claudio and Don Pedro. Annoyed, Benedick leaves. Claudio repeats his wish to marry Hero and beseeches the prince for help. Don Pedro promises to disguise himself as Claudio and woo Hero in Claudio's name.

Analysis

Much Ado About Nothing takes place in Messina, Italy. At the time of the play's writing, it was a small port town under Spanish rule (which is why Don Pedro is Spanish while everyone else is Italian). As governor of Messina, Leonato is the most important man in town. His home is most likely the grandest around, and its orchards hint at a rural backdrop. This is a change from the battlefields Don Pedro and his soldiers recently left behind. For them being in Messina is a holiday. A mood of revelry informs their actions at the beginning of the play.

Most of the characters in the play have met before. Don Pedro and Leonato are friends of old, and Claudio remembers looking upon Hero before he left for the war. It is Benedick and Beatrice, however, who have the most intriguing history. The nature of their relationship isn't explicitly stated, but it most certainly has something to do with romance—the main subject they talk about. Beatrice and Benedick have known each other a long time—she reminds him "I know you of old"—and their squabbles indicate a backstory never fully revealed.

Act 1, Scene 1 also establishes two of Much Ado About Nothing's important themes:

  • Honor is a constant topic of conversation in Much Ado About Nothing, mostly as it pertains to women. It first arises when Don Pedro asks whether Hero is Leonato's daughter. Leonato jokes in reply, "Her mother hath many times told me so." This is meant to be funny, as anyone can see Hero looks just like her father, but it also plays into the idea of the unfaithfulness of women. Benedick upholds this idea, believing any woman he married would certainly make him a cuckold—a man whose wife cheats on him.
  • Language plays an important role in the play. The most beloved characters are verbose, while villainous Don John is self-admittedly "not of many words." Beatrice and Benedick, in particular, have a habit of twisting each other's words to make contradictory, quibbling points. The messenger says Benedick is "A good soldier too, lady," to which Beatrice replies, "And a good soldier to a lady, but what is he to a lord?" The messenger defends Benedick while Beatrice insists on putting him down. Language is malleable and the same words can be interpreted in a variety of ways. This leads to confusion and distress in the course of the play.
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