Much Ado About Nothing: A Comedy with Deep Meaning
Much Ado About Nothing--the title sounds, to a modern ear, offhand and self-effacing; we might expect the play that follows such a beginning to be a marvelous piece of fluff and not much more. However, the play and the title itself are weightier than they initially seem. Shakespeare used two other such titles--Twelfth Night, or What You Will and As You Like It--both of which send unexpected reverberations of meaning throughout their respective plays, the former with its reference to the Epiphany and the topsy-turvy world of a saturnalian celebration, and the latter with its implications about how the characters (and the audience itself) see the world in general and the Forest of Arden in particular.
Much Ado About Nothing is no different, but we do not pick up the deeper resonances as quickly as an Elizabethan would, simply because of a shift in pronunciation. We get our first real glimpse of the pun in the title when Don Pedro says, "Note notes, forsooth, and nothing!" (The Complete Signet Classic Shakespeare, ed. Sylvan Barnet, New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, Inc., 1972, 2.3.57). As A. R. Humphreys explains, "That 'nothing', colloquially spoken, was close to or identical with 'noting' is the basis of Shakespearean puns, especially in a context of musical 'noting'. A similar pun, though non-musical, is conceivable here" (Introduction, The Arden Shakespeare: Much Ado About Nothing, London and New York: Methuen, 1981, 4).
The play is, in fact, driven by the "noting" of scenes or conversations and the characters' reactions to these observations; "noting" seems to be the thematic glue that binds the various plot elements together. When he wrote the play in 1598, Shakespeare assembled the Hero-Claudio plot line from bits and pieces of Ariosto's Orlando Furioso (Canto V) and Spenser's The Faerie Queene (Book II), and added details about Claudio and Don Pedro from Bandello's La Prima Parte de la Novelle (Novella 22). For the characters of Beatrice and Benedick, Shakespeare drew not so much on a specific story or plot as on the tradition of wit combat and characters from his own earlier comedies; these two characters can be seen, in fact, as wittier and more mature versions of Kate and Petruchio from The Taming of the Shrew. Dogberry and Verges also have no clear literary source, but seem instead to be taken from hakespeare's England. (For a detailed discussion of Much Ado's sources, see A. R. umphreys' introduction to The Arden Shakespeare: Much Ado About Nothing, London and New York: Methuen, 1981, 5-25.)
These characters, different though they may be, mesh together (and frequently clash) through their observations, chance overhearings, and deliberate eavesdroppings. The first sign of this comes early in Act I. When Claudio asks Benedick what he thinks of Hero, Benedick responds, "I noted her not, but I looked on her" (1.1.158). It becomes increasingly clear that they...