Thursday 29 May 2014

Much Ado About Nothing by William Shakespeare

Picture of William Shakespeare
It’s been a long time since I read any Shakespeare; not since school, and then only the tragedies, so I am unfamiliar with the comedies. However, these are referenced often in reviews; I’ve seen references to things being like a Midsummer Night’s Dream, or characters being Beatrice-like, so I decided, as a challenge to myself, that I would try to read a comedy. The version I read is designed for high school students and has notes alongside the text.

The basic story of Much Ado About Nothing is that Leonato welcomes visitors from war, a Prince, Don Pedro, and his friends. One of the friends, Claudio, falls in love with Leonato’s daughter, named Hero, and they decide to marry, but a plot is put in place by the Prince’s brother, Don John, to make Claudio believe that Hero has a lover and hence scupper the wedding. And then there is much ado about nothing, as Hero is entirely innocent. The play is enlivened by the squabbling between Hero’s cousin, Beatrice and Don Pedro’s friend, Benedick, who are both determined never to marry. Here are their respective views on marriage:

‘Beatrice: Just, if he send me no husband; for the which blessing I am at him upon my knees every morning and evening.’

‘Benedick: That a woman conceived me, I thank her; that she brought me up, I likewise give her most humble thanks: ... Because I will not do them the wrong to mistrust any, I will do myself the right to trust none; and the fine is, for the which I may go the finer, I will live a bachelor.’  

They both think they are very clever, each want to best each other’s wit and they bounce off each other wonderfully. Beatrice especially is a fantastic creation, she is a woman ahead of her time – rather than being meekly submissive like Hero, she is kick-ass, and has a very biting wit. However, Benedict is a match for this, and both of them really enjoy trying to get one over on the other:

‘Beatrice. I wonder that you will still be talking, Signior Benedick: nobody marks you.
Benedick. What, my dear Lady Disdain! are you yet living?
Beatrice. Is it possible disdain should die while she hath such meet food to feed it as Signior Benedick?’

There was something I wasn’t so keen on about this play, and that was the reaction to the false allegations – everybody immediately believes the worst of Hero, even her father! This is where Beatrice particularly shines, because her faith in her cousin is absolutely unfaltering.

‘Beatrice: Is he not approved in the height a villain, that hath slandered, scorned, dishonored my kinswoman? Oh, that I were a man! ... I would eat his heart in the marketplace.’

The biggest surprise for me most about this play is just how many funny lines there are. Shakespeare is famous for his wordplay, and rightly so, there are puns, the same word used in different ways and comedic bumbling. I am so impressed that comedy can still be funny over 400 years after it was written.

‘Marry, sir, they have committed false report; moreover, they have spoken untruths; secondarily, they are slanders; sixth and lastly, they have belied a lady; thirdly, they have verified unjust things; and, to conclude, they are lying knaves’

There were definitely some lines I recognised because I’d seen them elsewhere – the Lady Disdain quote, and this gorgeous one:
‘Sigh no more, ladies, sigh no more,
Men were deceivers ever,-
One foot in sea and one on shore,
To one thing constant never.’

This line reminded me a little of Pride and Prejudice, the idea that strong emotion can be difficult to express...
‘Silence is the perfectest herald of joy; I were but little happy, if I could say how much.’
When Darcy says, when talking of his silence when he came to Longbourn after Bingley and Jane got engaged a man who had felt less would have said more.

As this is a comedy, you are assured of a happy ending, although frankly some of the characters didn’t deserve one! I’m looking at YOU Claudio, and also Leonato. Humph!

As to the version of the book I read, if you’d like a version with notes I’d really recommend a version like this with the notes alongside the text rather than having to keep flipping between two sections of the book. Much of the language is pretty straightforward, particularly if you like reading older books, but there are things I picked up from the notes that I wouldn’t have known otherwise, such as a recurring theme throughout the play is horns – it was a superstition at the time that a cuckolded man would sprout horns. I’m not sure I’d necessarily recommend this version however, as there were more notes than I needed, and it was a tad distracting. Also, the notes were largely modern translation of the text and they didn’t highlight things like puns and other things which I’m sure would help to get a student extra marks. I also didn’t like the summary at the beginning of each act, which spoilered every section – put it at the end to summarise!

I very much enjoyed reading this play. I’d give it five stars, and the particular version I read 3 stars.

After I read the play I watched the Kenneth Branagh 1993 adaptation of it, which is really entertaining. Emma Thompson is excellent in most roles, and as you can imagine she completely steals the show as Beatrice. Kenneth Branagh plays Benedick, very amusingly. It’s a stellar cast, also featuring a very youthful Kate Beckinsale as Hero, Denzel Washington as Don Pedro and Keanu Reeves as Don John and generally more famous people than you could shake a stick at. I think I got more out of it by reading the play first, but it’d still be very enjoyable without having read it.

So, I have successfully overcome my trepidation of reading Shakespeare, and I’d certainly try reading more. If you’re nervous too, get a version with notes and give it a go!


  1. Bravo my fair lady and a movie as well! I have bought the books just need to find the time. I really do love that line you mentioned about a man who had felt less would have said more. It was fletcher's constant use of shakespeare in Pamela Aidan's trilogy that got me wanting to read his stuff again. Like you I have only really studied tragedies. Well done again you have inspired me.

    1. Thank you Tamara! This is the problem isn't it, finding the time. I have so many more books to read than I have time for, and I'm sure all fellow bookworms feel the same :)

  2. Excellent! I agree with so much of what you said - my high school did the same thing, we learned a new Shakespeare tragedy every year, which I enjoyed. But I love his comedies so much more! I read A Midsummers Night Dream and Much Ado on my own and have purchased Twelfth Night to read (about 4 years ago!) and it is still languishing on my TBR (poor thing!)

    Loved all the quotes you shared - Beatrice is marvelous, isn't she? Love her lines. And I loved Dogberry? he was so hilarious! I'm quite a big fan of the DVD, thought the cast was brilliant!

    1. I loved Beatrice, and Benedick too! I was very pleased with how much I enjoyed it, just needed to get over the mental obstacle of thinking it's too hard. I have heard of Twelfth Night but have no idea what it's about, that's another one I'll have to add to my TBR, as I'd definitely like to try Shakespeare again.


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