There is a strong suggestion that Shakespeare took elements of contemporary Venetian society into account in his imaginative construction of Messina, its local society and dominant values. Venice in Shakespeare's day was a leading commercial power, and, like Messina, it was a materially rich city in which attendance at masquerades was expected of all its leading figures. Even more to the point, Venice was known in Elizabethan times as a hotbed of intrigue and deception, a place in which outsiders could easily be fleeced by indigenous city-slickers. Messina too is full of plots and ploys, some benign in their aims, others malevolent in their purposes. At bottom, there is "something wrong" in Messina.
As noted elsewhere in this analysis of Much Ado, in Act I, scene i., not only does the legitimate Prince of Aragon, Don Pedro, appear on the stage with his loyal followers, his bastard brother Don John is there as well, along with a brace of demi-villains to assist him in further dirty work. Don Pedro explains that even though Don John has attempted to over turn his reign, the two are now reconciled. For Shakespeare's audiences, this would have sounded loud of alarums. Threats to the state by illegitimate usurpers had only one proper ending in Elizabethan society, the execution of the guilty. Seeing a defeated enemy of the state on stage, moving about freely and permitted to rub elbows with the local Messinians would be interpreted as a sign of weakness in the body politic. Under Leonato, Messina is a weak patriarchy, vulnerable to intrigue and disorder, with clowns like Dogberry assigned the task of safeguarding the public order. It is noteworthy that once Don Pedro has explained his "reconciliation" with Don John, no further word is said about the rebellion that the later has presumably led. Instead, war, even civil war, is treated by the victors and their hosts as a gentlemanly pursuit, a sport in which individuals distinguish themselves, rather...
(The entire section is 773 words.)
From its opening lines to its final scene, MUCH ADO ABOUT NOTHING is a feast of wit and verve. The play’s humor runs from slapstick to subtle wordplay, and it features Shakespeare’s wittiest couple, Beatrice and Benedick.
The plot consists of two interwoven love stories: those of Beatrice and Benedick, and that of Claudio and Hero. Claudio, accompanying his friend, Don Pedro to Messina, is smitten with the lovely Hero, daughter of Leonato, governor of Messina. To help his friend, Don Pedro assumes Claudio’s identity at a masked ball and woos Hero. In the meantime, Don John, bastard brother of Don Pedro, does his worst to undermine the love affair by convincing Claudio that Hero is unfaithful.
Benedick, another friend of Don Pedro, has arrived in Messina a confirmed bachelor, ridiculing men who succumb to marriage. Equally opposed to marriage is Beatrice, Leonato’s niece, the verbal jousting partner of Benedick. The fireworks between these two spark the play. Don Pedro, Hero, Claudio, and Leonato all conspire to bring this unlikely couple together.
The plot speeds to its climax on Hero and Claudio’s wedding day as Don John’s deceit convinces all but Beatrice and Benedick. When Don John’s evil plot is exposed in a hilarious report by the constable, Dogberry, Claudio is led to believe that his foolish acceptance of Don John’s lies about Hero has led to her death. One remaining plot twist awaits the repentant Claudio. After he consents to marry Leonato’s niece, he learns that Hero in fact is alive. A double wedding ensues.
Bloom, Harold, ed. William Shakespeare’s “Much Ado About Nothing.” New York: Chelsea House, 1988. Contains eight significant articles from the 1970’s and 1980’s. See especially the essays by Richard A. Levin, who looks beneath the comedic surface to find unexpected, troubling currents, and Carol Thomas Neely, who contributes an influential feminist interpretation.
Evans, Bertrand. Shakespeare’s Comedies. Oxford, England: Clarendon Press, 1960. Important critical study. Concludes that Shakespeare’s comic dramaturgy is based on different levels of awareness among characters and between them and the audience. The comedy in Much Ado About Nothing reflects an intricate game of multiple deceptions and misunderstandings that the audience enjoys from a privileged position.
Hunter, Robert Grams. Shakespeare and the Comedy of Forgiveness. New York: Columbia University Press, 1965. Argues persuasively that the thematic core of several Shakespeare comedies derives from the tradition of English morality plays. In Much Ado About Nothing, Claudio sins against the moral order by mistrusting Hero and is saved by repentance and forgiveness.
Macdonald, Ronald R. William Shakespeare: The Comedies. New York: Twayne, 1992. Compact introduction to Shakespeare’s comedy that is both critically sophisticated and accessible to the general reader. Essay on Much Ado About Nothing reveals various subtextual relationships of class and gender by probing the characters’ semantically complex and ironic verbal behavior.
Ornstein, Robert. Shakespeare’s Comedies: From Roman Farce to Romantic Mystery. London: Associated University Presses, 1986. Award-winning book by a major Shakespeare scholar. The chapter on Much Ado About Nothing offers a sensitive, graceful analysis of the play that focuses primarily on characterization, plot, and moral themes.