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Much Ado About Nothing is one of Shakespeare’s most beloved plays and a mainstay of the classical repertory. According to the Arden Shakespeare, the play was staged 35 times at Stratford-upon-Avon between 1879 and 1964 (an average of once every three years), and Kenneth Branagh’s film adaptation from 1993 is the highest grossing Shakespeare movie of modern times. But the play’s ubiquity within the dramatic tradition is hard to completely fathom. Consider this: Shakespeare’s play, the prototype for romantic comedy as it is currently constituted, is one of the Bard’s most atypical plays.
The play was written between 1598 and 1600, making it one of the last of Shakespeare’s comedies before the great tragedies of Julius Caesar, Hamlet and the character of Othello. When he would return to comedy, it would be to the much darker “problem comedies” of Measure for Measure and All’s Well That Ends Well. Despite its sunny reputation, Much Ado About Nothing actually foreshadows such works.
The play is famous for its story of acid wits in love—the bachelor Benedick and the orphan Beatrice—but its plot revolves around melodramatic machismo and darker passions. Claudio, who anticipates his namesake in Measure for Measure and Othello in his murderous lover’s jealousy, is misled repeatedly by the contrivances of a self-proclaimed villain (Don John, who foreshadows both Iago and his fellow bastard Edmund in King Lear). And the Claudio and Hero plot comes perilously close to a tragic ending. Indeed, perhaps it does—it’s difficult to play the scene of Hero’s shaming and Leonato’s raging grief in a comic register. No comedy in the Shakespearean canon ranges wider in tone from the bathetic to the sarcastic, and in none is the balance between the comic and tragic masks a more delicate one.
Perhaps this is why the critics, who in unison proclaim Beatrice and Benedick utterly charming creations, are surprisingly split on the merits of the play itself. (And odds are, if you ask a director about the play after rehearsal, they will tell you that it is far from the Bard’s easiest to stage.) It is almost as if Shakespeare, who was so famously fond of choosing equivocal phrases for his titles, is asking the question: is it really “Much Ado About Nothing?” Or is this play, in which a young woman is symbolically killed and resurrected, in which the governor of Messina challenges the visiting Spanish king to a fatal duel, in which lifelong friendships are suddenly broken beyond repair, actually about a very real thing indeed? Shakespeare was always sly about criticizing those in power, but in this play, so indebted to courtly rhetoric for its wit, he paints a far from flattering picture of the verbal games and pastimes of those in power.
I’ll let the critics have their say. As always, if you have any questions I am at DLichtenberg@ShakespeareTheatre.org.