Much Ado About Nothing | Study Guide

William Shakespeare

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Much Ado About Nothing | 10 Things You Didn't Know


William Shakespeare's Much Ado About Nothing, thought to have been written between 1598 and 1599, is considered one of the playwright's greatest comedies. Much Ado About Nothing follows the romance of Benedick and Beatrice as they negotiate a series of tricks played on them to make them believe they both suffer from unrequited love.

The tropes of a happy ending, united lovers, and a villain receiving justice, which appear in Much Ado About Nothing, defined Shakespeare's comedic writing career. Some or all of the tropes appeared in many of his other plays—including The Merchant of Venice and A Midsummer Night's Dream—and would inspire countless playwrights after him. As in many of his plays, Shakespeare also made sure to include a "fool" character, Dogberry, to ensure the audience's entertainment and provide commentary on the plot.

1. Much Ado About Nothing features more prose than nearly any other Shakespearean play.

Shakespeare wrote Much Ado About Nothing with 75% prose, or unstructured text, and only 25% verse, or poetry. This makes it his second most prose-heavy play—only The Merry Wives of Windsor contains more, with 88% prose. In Much Ado About Nothing verse is used for expressing the more emotional statements and scenes as well as for differentiating scenes.

The first page of Much Ado About Nothing.

The first page of Much Ado About Nothing. Folger Shakespeare Library. CC by SA 4.0

2. The use of the word nothing in the title Much Ado About Nothing is a double entendre.

In Shakespeare's time the word nothing was pronounced the same as noting, allowing the playwright to make numerous puns between the two words. The title's more risqué meaning comes from the Elizabethan use of nothing to mean female anatomy, as it stood for "no-thing," implying a vacancy compared to a man's sexual organ.

3. Much Ado About Nothing gave rise to the expression "curiosity killed the cat."

A similar expression first appeared in another Elizabethan-era play, Ben Jonson's Every Man in His Humour, written in 1598: "Helter skelter, hang sorrow, care'll kill a cat." A short time later Shakespeare furthered the phrase's popularity in Much Ado About Nothing, writing, "What, courage, man! What though care killed a cat? Thou hast mettle enough in thee to kill care."

4. Much Ado About Nothing contains a theatrical mistake known as a "ghost character."

The theatrical concept of a "ghost character" refers to a character written into the text and mentioned in the stage directions but not given any lines or actions to perform. Innogen, the wife of Leonato in Much Ado About Nothing, fits this description and can easily be omitted from a staged performance of the play.

5. Much Ado About Nothing was influenced by a classic Italian epic poem.

Many scholars conclude that Shakespeare's main source for Much Ado About Nothing was Ludovico Ariosto's poem Orlando Furioso. The plots of courtly love are similar in both works, and it makes sense Shakespeare would find inspiration in an Italian poem while writing about a kingdom in Sicily.

Page from 1565 edition of Orlando Furioso by Francesco Franceschi.

Page from 1565 edition of Orlando Furioso by Francesco Franceschi.

6. No one really knows when Much Ado About Nothing was first performed.

Since Shakespeare wrote Much Ado About Nothing for an actor who left his troupe in 1599, critics agree the play must have been written sometime before then. However, no record of a performance of it exists before 1613, when it was staged for the wedding of Princess Elizabeth and Frederick V, elector Palatine—a European administrator.

7. The character Dogberry in Much Ado About Nothing was written for a specific actor in Shakespeare's troupe.

Shakespeare wrote the character for William Kempe, a uniquely talented comedic actor who joined his troupe, the Lord Chamberlain's Men, in 1594. However, Kempe left the acting group in 1599, before any recorded performance of Much Ado About Nothing. There are no records regarding the reason for his departure, but many scholars infer his "chronic improvising" onstage caused other members to ask him to leave.

William Kempe dancing a jig from Norwich to London in 1600.

William Kempe dancing a jig from Norwich to London in 1600.

8. Dogberry was named after an unappealing fruit from England.

Dogberry referred to the fruit of the dogwood shrub, a common plant in Great Britain. The berries of this shrub look edible, but they are actually bitter and used only to produce oils and soaps. Shakespeare's decision to name the character after this plant may be in reference to Dogberry's incompetent policing tactics, despite his confident appearance.

Dogberry fruit.

Dogberry fruit. CarTick CC BY-SA 3.0

9. A comedic technique was named a "dogberryism" after the character.

A dogberryism refers to a purposeful confusion of multisyllabic words for comedic effect. The technique, more formally referred to as "malapropism," is illustrated when Dogberry states he "comprehended two auspicious persons," when he meant he apprehended two suspicious people. A modern malapropism might look something like this: The group is cornerned about the climactic effects of increased fossil fuel use. The sentence should read, "The group is concerned about the climatic effects of increased fossil fuel use.

10. The lead singer of Green Day wrote the music for a rock opera of Much Ado About Nothing.

Billie Joe Armstrong, who sings lead vocals for the rock band, wrote the songs featured in These Paper Bullets!, a rock opera of Shakespeare's play set in 1960s London. One critic called the play "an ingenious adaptation" that "reaches peaks of zany goofiness."

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