Michael Delahoyde, PhD

Professor of English

Much Ado About Nothing
Act I

Michael Delahoyde, PhD
Professor of English

1) Much Ado About what really? What is the main theme, which may later amount to “nothing”?
2) There is possible wordplay in the title. The Elizabethan pronunciation of “Nothing” would have contained a harder “th,” thus: Much Brouhaha About “Noting” = taking note of, overhearing, setting to music, etc. (Garber 380). How is this an appropriate pun for this play? What about the “bawdy O” as another possible pun?
3) What is Don John’s problem (or motivation)?
4) How do we know from early on that Beatrice and Benedick belong together?
5) If Don Pedro and Don John are half-brothers, how come they have the same first name: Don?



The first reference is to a letter: Leonato, governor of Messina (in Sicily), receives word that Don Pedro of Arragon — the medieval Eastern Spanish kingdom (for more historical background, see Asimov 545) — will be arriving there with his troops after a military victory, so we prepare for carnival time in Messina: feasting, music, marriage, game-playing — love after war, the domestic sphere after the battlefield. Casualties were minimal, reports the messenger; they lost “But few of any sort, and none of name” (I.i.7), a perspective emerging casually from privilege. And Claudio, who often in the play seems based on Philip Sidney (Clark 536), has proven himself. He is identified as “a young Florentine” (I.i.10-11), like Cassio in Othello, a “resident of one of the most elegant and mannered cities in Italy” (Garber 375).

Beatrice, niece to Leonato, interjects, “I pray you, is Signior Mountanto return’d from the wars or no?” (I.i.30-31), and no one knows what she’s talking about (including the critics: the note that an Italian montanto is an upward thrust in fencing offers no help). Asimov assumes that the reference to the fencing thrust indicates that Benedick is a “great swashbuckler” (Asimov 546), however sarcastically this is meant. Hero, Leonato’s daughter, translates the enigmatic in-joke: “My cousin means Signior Benedick of Padua” (I.i.35-36). A possible reference to the hostile “challenge” (I.i.39ff) posed by a kinsman of Anne Vavasour (Oxford’s mistress) follows (Ogburn and Ogburn 482). That Benedick “set up bills” (I.i.39) may refer to Oxford launching dramatic productions at his own expense (Clark 537). Beatrice snipes about Benedick, including a barb about his dinnertime self-indulgences: “He is a very valiant trencherman, he hath an excellent stomach” (I.i.51-52). Leonato apologizes to the messenger, attributing Beatrice’s comments to a “merry war betwixt Signior Benedick and her; they never meet but there’s a skirmish of wit between them” (I.i.62-64). But it’s interesting that she’s so caught up in this ongoing love/hate feud that no one knows what in hell she’s talking about at first. She seems to dwell especially on cowardice and fickleness in Benedick. She asks who is his most recent companion, and speaks of association with Benedick as if he were a disease: “God help the noble Claudio! If he have caught the Benedick, it will cost him a thousand pound ere ‘a be cur’d” (I.i.89-90); note this frequent Shakespearean reference to the amount of the de Vere annuity from Queen Elizabeth’s secret service funds.

[The song that we will hear in Act II is odd anyway, advising resignation in the face of male infidelity. But the Kenneth Branagh film version of this play also places the song at the very beginning with even the men laughing communally at it, despite the lyrics. In other words, the men are mesmerized by Beatrice’s song about what wretches they are. This is followed shortly thereafter by the soldiers cheering gloriously just as the title of the play appears — Much Ado About Nothing — a lovely touch of irony. Given what’s coming, it seems that love is “much ado about nothing.” Is this a sort of “benign nihilism” (Bloom 200)?]

Don Pedro — perhaps named for the first Spanish Sicilian monarch (Farina 45) — and the rest of the soldiers enter and all exchange brief pleasantries, though aware of the financial burden of the situation. Benedick seems to have the reputation of being a bit of a rake, as an instance of the characteristic Shakespearean “anxiety of paternity” (Garber 374) reveals: for when Don Pedro asks if Hero is Leonato’s daughter and Leonato jokes, “Her mother hath many times told me so” (I.i.105), Benedick adds good-humoredly, “Were you in doubt, sir, that you ask’d her?” (I.i.106), and Leonato responds, “Signior Benedick, no, for then were you a child” (I.i.107-108). Get it?

Benedick and Beatrice go at it. In general, Beatrice mocks male prerogative and pretenses, pompousness and misogyny, but she is no mere shrew: she still is compassionate and sensitive in response to Hero later. Here both parties insult each other’s wretched personality and love itself. Beatrice makes snide remarks about Benedick’s face and he retorts with comments concerning her tongue.

Don John, Pedro’s bastard half-brother, has been recently reconciled with him — perhaps reflecting “Elizabeth’s vacillating clemency towards Henry Howard,” her cousin and Oxford’s (Ogburn and Ogburn 498) — but when greeted by Leonato, Don John ominously says, “I am not of many words” (I.i.157). Don John of Austria was half-brother to Philip of Spain but died in 1578. More pertinent seems to be the treacherous Lord Henry Howard’s release from prison (Clark 540-541) and perhaps traces of Leicester, suspected of being behind the Yorke treachery (Anderson 116) — that is, the villains initially close to Oxford trying to sow suspicion in his mind concerning his wife.

When Benedick and Claudio get a moment alone, Claudio asks, “didst thou note the daughter of Signior Leonato?” “I noted her not, but I look’d on her,” replies Benedick (I.i.162-164). This “noting” points out a pun in the play’s title, in which “Nothing” reportedly would have sounded similar to “noting” in Elizabethan pronunciation; indeed, the play contains skads of “noting”: gossip, hearsay, eavesdropping, taking note of. “Everything is overheard, misheard, or constructed on purpose for eavesdropping” (Garber 375). But about “nothing” in the sense of about “O,” there are many facets (Ogburn and Ogburn 497). Benedick, acknowledging that misogyny is his shtick and that he can perform loquaciously on command (I.i.167-169), rails against women and marriage. But a smitten Claudio hears little: no, tell me what you really think!

Don Pedro returns wondering what secret has kept them from joining the others. Benedick insists, “I can be secret as a dumb man” (I.i.209-210), but the subject is broached and he tattles on Claudio. A reference to the English ballad of master archers (I.i.248) appears (Asimov 549), as does a reference (I.i.273) to perhaps the 1580 earthquake (Clark 540). Don Pedro’s reference to “temporiz[ing] with the hours” (I.i.274-275) may allude to Pope Gregory’s controversial calendar change in 1582 (Clark 540), which England did not adopt for many decades, behind other European countries. (Shakespeare seems concerned with this matter in Julius Caesar also.)

Don Pedro thinks Hero very worthy of Claudio’s love and enjoys Benedick’s entertaining rant which voices the Shakespearean conflation, almost equation, of any romantic involvement with betrayal: girlfriend = marriage = cuckoldry. Don Pedro expects Benedick eventually will sing another tune: “In time the savage bull doth bear the yoke” (I.i.261) — a line appearing in “Thomas Watson’s” Hekatompathia — dedicated to the Earl of Oxford (Clark 539) — a variation of which appears in The Spanish Tragedy (II.i.3) — a very Shakespearean play baselessly attributed to Thomas Kyd. They riff on horns, music, and letter-writing before Benedick departs.

Claudio speaks more plainly to Don Pedro, explaining that while the recent war was the priority,

I look’d upon her [Hero] with a soldier’s eye,
That lik’d, but had a rougher task in hand
Than to drive liking to the name of love.
But now I am return’d, and that war-thoughts
Have left their place vacant, in their rooms
Come thronging soft and delicate desires,
All prompting me how fair young Hero is,
Saying I lik’d her ere I went to wars.

It’s a peculiar reading of love psychology. It’s another Shakespearean case of the awkward and often disastrous transition from soldier to lover (as in Othello). But Don Pedro will help Claudio out with the wooing as a go-between and in speaking highly of Claudio to Hero’s father, especially at the costume party tonight where he can pretend to be a disguised Claudio and use his eloquence to “take her hearing prisoner with the force / And strong encounter of my amorous tale” (I.i.324-325). Silence is a danger to Claudio and Hero; they eventually must learn to speak while Beatrice and Benedick must learn to cease speaking occasionally (Garber 378-379).

“The sixt of July” (I.i.283), referred to arbitrarily, fell on a Monday in 1579 (Ogburn and Ogburn 488), and some Oxfordians consider July 6th significant. It is the death day of Edward VI, and it is St. Valentine’s Day in the Eastern Orthodox calendar. July 6th was also “a quarter-day when rents were due, and hence a likely day for letter-writing” (McEachern 206) — a stretch which at least matches the context here.


Leonato and his brother Antonio briefly discuss a possible love match overheard and reported by one of Antonio’s servants. But the “noting” seems to have been bungled, and the impression is that the Prince (Don Pedro) was confessing to “Count” Claudio (I.ii.9) his own affection for Hero. Leonato will warn Hero of this rumor “that she may be the better prepar’d for an answer” (I.ii.22). Events should transpire at the party tonight.


Don John wallows in his antisocial destructive tendencies, declaring, “I cannot hide what I am” (I.iii.13). His “saturnine” demeanor (I.iii.10-12) means that he is intrinsically grave and gloomy (Asimov 550). Conrade his comrade confirms for us that Don John recently rebelled against his brother Don Pedro but was taken “newly into his grace” (I.iii.22). But Don John cannot exert energies pretending to be contented: “I am a plain-dealing villain” (I.iii.32); “let me be that I am, and seek not to alter me” (I.iii.36-37). Borachio, another follower, whose name suggests drunkenness but also may derive from “Broach E.O.” or stab E.O. (Ogburn and Ogburn 499), brings news: “I whipt me behind the arras” (I.iii.60-61), he says, and heard that Don Pedro would help Claudio woo Hero. Here is something to plot the smash-up of, although how this will injure Don Pedro is unclear. Like Iago in some ways, Don John the bastard is a malcontent with no particularly sufficient motivation, nothing to gain, incapable of human relationships. Is he morose and treacherous simply because he’s a bastard? He has fringe legitimacy (the title “Don”), but rebels against subordination from a position of powerlessness — he seeks the overturning of events for its own sake: “If I can cross him in any way, I bless myself every way” (I.iii.67-68).

Conrad IV was the last German emperor to rule Sicily in the 1250s (Asimov 550); but it is both tempting and logical to think of these three villains as Henry Howard, Charles Arundel (C. Arundel being a rough anagram for Conrade?), and Francis Southwell (see Clark 541n; Ogburn and Ogburn 498f). Howard has been described as a “sinister bachelor don … a master of slander and intrigue” (qtd. in Pearson 106); “sinister slander was his forte” (qtd. in Pearson 108). When Oxford reported their Catholic and murderous treachery to Queen Elizabeth, they desperately retaliated with the Howard-Arundel Libels: a long list of accusations against Oxford that seem to be ridiculed in the coming acts of this play.

Act II