As a title, Much Ado About Nothing (MAAN) conforms aptly with the names of Shakespeare’s other plays authored within the same time period. The titles seem fanciful and almost mischievous. What You Will is a widely accepted alternate title for Twelfth Night and As You Like It appears to be a vastly less descriptive heading than, perhaps, The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark. In truth however, these erratic titles are actually just as reflective of their content as any of those of Shakespeare’s tragedies. The plot of MAAN focuses on a lot of fuss concerning trivial misunderstandings. For the more significant issues throughout the play, we must acknowledge the fact that, in Shakespeare’s era, the word ‘nothing’ was usually pronounced the same way as ‘noting.’ The play is constructed around the action of ‘noting,’ which has multiple meanings. It’s definitions include eavesdropping, observing, taking notice of something, or writing something down – but these don’t effectively encapsulate all that “noting” can mean. A character can misunderstand a piece of information, or misreport, or mishear something, in the action of noting as well. The confusions that ensue as a result of noting (and more often mis-noting) are critical to moving the plot along. Throughout MAAN, Shakespeare cleverly puppeteers his characters into eavesdropping and often misinterpreting information (or misinformation for that matter) in order to further his overall message that blindly accepting what immediately appears to be true, without verifying its credibility, can lead to unexpected consequences.
The first major case of “noting” that changes the course of the story is found in what Shakespeare scholars refer to as “the gulling of Benedick” and “the gulling of Beatrice.” When these characters are first introduced, Shakespeare wastes no time letting us know that they aren’t fond of each other. This is made evident in an interaction in which a messenger asks if “the gentleman [Benedick] is in your books?” and Beatrice vehemently responds “No. An he were, I would burn my study” (1.1.76-78). As it turns out, others possess different designs. Don Pedro, the Prince of Aragon and Benedick’s superior, fancies himself such an esteemed matchmaker that he could join even Benedick and Beatrice, plotting to stage two separate conversations full of falsehoods that both Beatrice and Benedick will overhear. With knowledge that Benedick is hiding within earshot, the Prince, Claudio, and Leonato engage in a conversation with an intent to convince Benedick that Beatrice loves him. This plot becomes clear when Leonato says “she loves him with an enraged affection, it is past the infinite of thought” (2.3.108-109). Benedick believes this as he holds Leonato to be a man of such stature that he would not lie. Likewise, Beatrice overhears a discussion between Hero and Ursula of a similar scheme. After Ursula asks if indeed “Benedick loves Beatrice so entirely,” Hero responds “So says the Prince and my new-trothed lord” (3.1.38-40). Through this ploy, Shakespeare all but invents the archetype of the unlikely lovers – using eavesdropping as his catalyst. He wants us to know that as much as we pride ourselves upon being individuals of our own making, more often than not, we are all products of our circumstances and the situations we happen to encounter. Through the previously inconceivable union of these two characters, Shakespeare proves the power of misinformation to his audience.
Another scene in which the playwright uses “noting” as a means of misleading his characters is the dance sequence. Because most of the characters are masked, permitting them to covertly observe the interactions of others, this scene is ripe for misunderstanding or “mis-noting.” A prime example of this can be seen when Don John knowingly approaches Claudio and asks if he is Signior Benedick. Upon Claudio answering affirmatively, Don John declares, with mal intent, that Don Pedro seeks to seduce Hero for himself, stating “Signior, you are very near my brother in his love. He is enamored on Hero” (2.1.161-162). Claudio buys into Don John’s misinformation without little further thought when he declares “‘Tis certain so, the Prince woos for himself. Friendship is constant in all other things save in the office and affairs of love” (2.1.172-174). Claudio reveals himself to be too trusting as he believes Don John despite just being assured by the Prince in the previous scene that he courts Hero on his behalf. By way of this interaction, Shakespeare adds context to his title by reinforcing the idea that we can be easily mislead by deception if we blindly accept misinformation, and that our lives might be hugely altered if we do.
Shakespeare’s predominant use of “noting” as a way of convincing his characters of falsehood occurs in Don John’s scheme to break off Claudio and Hero’s engagement the night before they are set to wed. Motivated by his unquenchable hatred of his legitimate brother, Don John designs a plan to lead Claudio to observe a fake Hero with another man. He gulls Claudio into following him to the courtyard below Hero’s window by referring to Claudio’s wife-to-be with cruel sarcasm as “Leonato’s Hero, your Hero, every man’s Hero” – implying that she has been disloyal during their engagement (3.2.99-100). As one of a number of characters that
willingly believe rumors and schemes without second thought or further verification, Claudio hastily agrees to shame Hero publically at the following day’s wedding when he says “If I see anything tonight why I should not marry her, tomorrow in the congregation, where I should wed, there I will shame her” (3.3.116-118). In this manner, Shakespeare sets up Claudio and the Prince to overhear the simulated love scene supposedly between Hero and another man. Once again, Shakespeare harkens back to his title by proving the consequential power of misinterpreting the truth. Despite Claudio being truly in Love with Hero, he all too readily believes Don John’s falsity, setting himself up to believe the bastard’s scheme without any further consideration for ulterior motivations or confounding variables. Shakespeare uses this false observation (or “mis-noting”) as a cautionary tale, warning the audience to avoid jumping to conclusions and the unintended consequences that generally arise from them.
In Much Ado About Nothing, Shakespeare’s drives the main and sub-plots through cunning use of eavesdropping, mishearing, and the resulting spread of misinformation. The many instances of significant misunderstandings resulting from small, trivial matters gives context to the double entendre within the title – that much is happening due to “noting,” but also that these things are occuring over “nothing” of real substance. While he uses this to keep the plot of Much Ado About Nothing exciting, Shakespeare truly wants the audience to know that deception and spread of lies can befall all of us.