Michael Delahoyde, PhD

Professor of English

Much Ado About Nothing



The setting of a “pleachèd bower” (cf. 1.2.8) — a shaded arbor formed by weaving branches overhead — is a distinctive practice in Messina and a necessary one given the summer heat (Roe 222). A reference to “favorites, / Made proud by princes, that advance their pride / Against that power that bred it” (III.i.9-11) may allude to the Earl of Essex (Asimov 555) but could just as well mean an earlier Elizabethan courtier.

Hero sends Margaret to fetch Beatrice so that she may overhear Hero and Ursula chatting about Benedick being “sick in love with Beatrice” (III.i.21).

Then go we near her, that her ear lose nothing
Of the false sweet bait that we lay for it.
No, truly, Ursula, she is too disdainful;
I know her spirits are as coy and wild
As haggard of the rock. (III.i.32-36)

The haggard is an untamed female hawks in rocky terrains (therefore difficult to tame). The term recurs in the works of Shakespeare — for example, in The Taming of the Shrew (4.1.179, 4.2.39), Othello (3.3.257), Twelfth Night (3.1.62), etc. — and earlier captured the interest of Oxford, as in the E.O. poem “If Women Could Be Fair and Yet Not Fond,” where he wrote, “like haggard wild they range.” J.T. Looney first recognized all this before 1920 (139-140).

So in a scene parallel to Benedick’s previously (II.iii) — but this one in blank verse instead of the prose earlier — Beatrice overhears similar reports about Benedick and what a “disdainful” wretch and “carping” malcontent she is (III.i.34, 71).

Disdain and scorn ride sparkling in her eyes,
Misprising what they look on, and her wit
Values itself so highly that to her
All matter else seems weak. She cannot love,
Nor take no shape nor project of affection,
She is so self-endeared.

Everyone admires Benedick, according to Hero and her gentlewoman Ursula: “Signior Benedick, / For shape, for bearing, argument, and valor, / Goes foremost in report through Italy” (III.i.95-97). So Beatrice must think she is the problem. And consider what effect it would have on you if you overheard someone declare “She cannot love” (III.i.54)! Her conversion is quick:

What fire is in mine ears? Can this be true?
Stand I condemn’d for pride and scorn so much?
Contempt, farewell, and maiden pride, adieu!
No glory lives behind the back of such.
And, Benedick, love on, I will requite thee,
Taming my wild heart to thy loving hand.
If thou dost love, my kindness shall incite thee
To bind our loves up in a holy band;
For others say thou dost deserve, and I
Believe it better than reportingly.


Don Pedro, Claudio, and Leonato rib Benedick about his new grooming rituals. He claims merely to have a toothache. [Some productions make the brilliant move of having Benedick’s jaw wrapped in a bandage to suggest the toothache — a la Bugs Bunny cartoons — but really to hide his new clean-shaven look from the men.] Claudio insists Benedick is in love; Don Pedro feigns skepticism:

There is no appearance of fancy in him, unless it be a fancy that he hath to strange disguises–as to be a Dutchman to-day, a Frenchman to-morrow, or in the shape of two countries at once, as a German from the waist downward, all slops, and a Spaniard from the hip upward, no doublet. Unless he have a fancy to this foolery, as it appears he hath, he is no fool for fancy, as you would have it appear he is. (III.ii.31-39; cp. Merchant I.ii.73f!)

In any case, Benedick has been sprucing himself up: “the old ornament of his cheek hath already stuff’d tennis-balls” (III.ii.46-47). (The tennis-ball references, as also in Henry V, probably stem from the contentious incident between Oxford and Sidney in 1579.)

Don John enters and puts forth an “impediment” (III.ii.93) to Claudio’s marriage: an accusation of Hero’s infidelity: “Even she–Leonato’s Hero, your Hero, every man’s Hero” (III.ii.106-107) — how like Iago again. He will prove the truth of the accusation tonight. Don Pedro and Claudio immediately entertain the worst about her and commit themselves to nasty retribution if what the bastard says is true: Claudio vows, “If I see any thing to-night why I should not marry her, to-morrow in the congregation, where I should wed, there will I shame her” (III.ii.123-125). Don Pedro adds, “And as I woo’d for thee to obtain her, I will join with thee to disgrace her” (III.ii.126-127). Rather extreme, no? Shouldn’t Claudio, like, talk to her to see if we need to cancel with the caterers?

Don John’s scheme strikes at the heart of what makes him a bastard — the chastity/constancy ideal. But the whole thing works too easily. This motif of a woman wrongly accused of infidelity often involves conflict between trusting love and trusting a former friendship. (Hmm. Othello, Sonnets, Oxford’s experience….) Claudio feels duped in the bargain, but the shallowness of the courtship/proposal (he wooed by proxy) doesn’t speak highly of the relationship. And we never see them alone together. So naturally it’s easier to believe slander against Hero. Hero is docile and passive, ironically named for the classical heroine who passionately killed herself over the death of her clandestine lover. Despite Beatrice’s good advice (II.i.52f), some people just think they should get married and do, and don’t have enough brains to realize how miserable they are. But those who have questioned romantic notions convince us that they achieve a more enduring and deeper relationship.


Constable Dogberry and his partner Verges inspect the night watch and Dogberry advises them about procedures given various potential situations, essentially amounting to an order to do nothing. Dogberry does not use language properly, hence much of the comedy, and has a predilection for malapropisms: “You are thought here to be the most senseless and fit man for the constable of the watch…. This is your charge: you shall comprehend all vagrom men” (III.iii.22-25).

The watchmen overhear Borachio speaking to Conrade; first, these two thugs banter about fashion, haut couture! Then Borachio explains how he fooled the others into thinking his affair with Margaret was actually evidence of Hero’s infidelity. Productions that avoid, like the play, partly duck questions such as how did Margaret get convinced to role-play as Hero? The buffoon on watch arrest these villains. Oxford references Daniel from the apocryphal Bel and the Dragon again (III.iii.134f). One of the Watch takes the thugs’ references to “deform’d” to be the name of a person: “one Deformed is one of them. I know him; ‘a wears a lock” (III.iii.140).
Henry Howard wrote to Elizabeth about Oxford: “Althoughe this course of casting open other mennes deformities most graciouse and most redouted souerayne repugne so much against my nature as I rather wold endure the smarte of trouble then be noted for ane instrumente of other mennes calamity, yet….” Howard wrote to Walsingham (Secretary of State) on 12 January 1580 about Oxford: “Touching mine accuser if the botchis and deformities of his mishapen life suffice not to discredit the warrant of his wreckfull worde, yet…” (qtd. in Allen 550; Nelson 259). As for the “lock,” the Watchman refers to a love-lock, a goofy hair fashion; but does Oxford refer to the lock on his identity, the being “tongue-tied by authority”? And is Deformed a deformed form of “defamed”?


Hero, Margaret, and Ursula chat about clothes. Margaret’s reference to the gown of the Duchess of Milan signifies that Shakespeare knows Milan to be the “center of haute couture” (Anderson 105). It’s also another dismissal of a Howard-Arundel Libel, where Oxford was accused of pronouncing “that the meanest shoemaker’s wife in Milan (be it spoken with reverence and pardon) is more gallant and more delicately suited every common working-day than the Queen our mistress is at Whitsuntide.” Shortly after a reference to being “turn’d Turk” (III.iv.57) — Elizabeth’s nickname for Oxford — Hero remarks, “These gloves the Count sent me, they are an excellent perfume” (III.iv.62-63) — further references to Oxford having introduced perfumed gloves from Italy to the English court (Clark 548; Ogburn and Ogburn 484-485; Anderson 100). Beatrice faces Hero and Margaret on the Benedick question and is baited much like Benedick was two scenes ago. Hero must prepare herself for the ceremony.


Dogberry and Verges try to alert Leonato about the arrests, but Dogberry’s bungling loquaciousness obstructs efficiency: “but truly, for mine own part, if I were as tedious as a king, I could find in my heart to bestow it all of your worship” (III.v.21-22). He reports that they “have indeed comprehended two aspicious persons” (III.v.46), but Leonato is busy with the wedding planning and tells them to conduct their own inquest.

“Dogberry likes to hear himself talk as well as Beatrice and Benedick do” (Goddard, I 279). Beatrice’s “primary interest is herself; Benedick’s self-love echoes hers, while Dogberry’s self-intoxication parodies both the lovers” (Bloom 197). His last lines here concern finding a “learned writer to set down our excommunication” (III.v.63-64), meaning either communication or examination — but “excommunication” was a topical issue in 1580 regarding the Papal condemnation of Queen Elizabeth.

Much Ado About Nothing, Act by Act

Much Ado Intro

Much Ado Act I

Much Ado Act II

Much Ado Act III

Much Ado Act IV

Much Ado Act V