Much Ado About Nothing was first published as a Quarto in 1600, but it seems likely that it was composed in late 1598 or early 1599, and that it was performed around then. However, the first recorded performances were at Court in the winter of 1612 / 1613.
The play seems to mark a transition away from the early comedies, where the young couples are blocked from marriage by external factors, such as law or a father’s will. In the later comedies, such as Twelfth Night, the blocking factors tend to be internal, psychological factors. These in turn seem to lead towards the problem comedies of Measure for Measure, All’s Well That Ends Well, and Troilus and Cressida. In Much Ado About Nothing, the blocking factors for Hero and Claudio are external – Don John’s calumny persuades Claudio to reject Hero, and internal for Beatrice and Benedict.
The play’s title seems to imply a lighthearted, social comedy, but the Nothing of the title had different connotations for an Elizabethan audience than now. Firstly, Nothing (pronounced noting) was Elizabethan slang for female sexual genitalia, and they are prominent in the play in the concern about cuckoldry expressed by most of the male characters. But Noting was also gossip, rumour, overhearing, and perhaps even calumny. These also loom large in the play, from Beatrice and Benedick ‘overhearing’ that they are loved by the ‘other’, to the teasing of Claudio throughout the play, and most gravely to the calumny of Hero, which leads to her ‘death’ so she can be reborn into marriage.
The play, like Twelfth Night, is set in a country house, but not in Illyria. Instead we are near Messina in Sicily, though many of the inhabitants, again like Twelfth Night, appear quite English.
In this setting, the play follows two courtships: that between Beatrice and Benedick, and another between Hero and Claudio. Traditionally, audiences have loved the courtship of Beatrice and Benedick. The witty Beatrice sparring with the misogynist Benedick, their mutual antipathy eventually overcome by the teasing interventions of their friends.
An alternative reading is to pick up on the hints in the text, that Beatrice and Benedick have a painful history. The play has barely started, when Beatrice constantly maligns the absent Benedick. He seems to have got under her skin. And then Beatrice makes it clear in A2S1 at the dance, that there is some history:
Indeed, my lord, he lent it [his heart] me awhile, and I gave use for it, a double heart for his single one. Marry, once before he won it of me with false dice; therefore your grace may well say I have lost it.
Perhaps Benedick and Beatrice’s courtship is analogous to Claudio’s and Hero’s in consisting of an initial setback followed by a reaffirmation? In this reading, Beatrice, is a shrew defending her wounded heart against Benedick, not dissimilar from Katherine in The Taming of the Shrew, defending herself against the foolish old men that surround her.
The story of Hero and Claudio’s courtship is much darker, with Hero having to ‘die’ to overcome Claudio’s fears and the slanders of her unfaithfulness.
Claudio doesn’t behave well in the play. He falls rather rapidly in love with Hero, seeks reassurance from his friends that marrying her is a good idea, and then is very quick to believe the worst of her, and refusing to marry her during the wedding seems unpleasant to say the least.
Hero’s father, Leonato, has a different role from fathers in most Shakespearean comedies. He has the second biggest role in the play (321 lines or 14% of the play, compared with 61 lines or 2.5% of the play for Egeus in A Midsummer Night’s Dream). More than half these lines are given over to two scenes: A4S1 – the wedding scene – where he shows his response to Claudio’s rejection of Hero; and A5S1 where he (and Antonio) challenge Claudio for maligning his daughter. If this wasn’t a comedy things would end badly, but it is a comedy, so the scene is usually played for laughs.
There are other darknesses and lightnesses in the play. The Elizabethan neurosis concerning cuckoldry is strong in both Claudio and Benedick, and nearly all the other male characters in the play. However, there are suggestions that cuckoldry is more than a fear of having an unfaithful wife, but also include a fear of being immasculated and dominated by one’s wife.
The female, too, shows darkness that is more usually hidden. Beatrice, like Electra, shows a loyalty to family members which calls for revenge – by a male:
Is ‘a not approved in the height a villain, that has slandered, scorned, dishonoured my kinswoman? O that I were a man!
And, very Ancient Greek: