So says Benedick in Much Ado About Nothing, Shakespeare’s celebration of love. At the top of the story, the war is over. The troops are coming home and young men and women are beginning to think of love and marriage. We are in romantic Sicily, in the home and gardens of Leonato—sun-drenched and warm, full of romance and wine.
The dark and light sides of romance are seen throughout the play: the “trick” played on Beatrice and Benedick is full of fun and delight, but the one played on claudio and Hero has dark, tragic results. While we delight in the “warring love” of Beatrice and Benedick, their gibes, cuts, verbal thrusts and parries, the play is also full of secrets, spying, masks and mischief.
For this production, we have transported the play to the Victorian 1840s, the time of the Brontë sisters’ Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights, Charles Dickens and Alexandre Dumas. in this age, love has joyful triumphs but it is also entwined with drama and secrets that must come to light.
Shakespeare’s morals are never spelled out for us, but to me Much Ado says that when you are in love, misunderstanding will follow, so trust and forgive each other. the alternative is loneliness.
“Therefore play, music! Prince, thou art sad; get thee a wife, get thee a wife!”
— Act 5, Scene 4
—Jim Helsinger, director
In its very title, Much Ado About Nothing explores the nature of misunderstanding and the power of misrepresentation. The word “nothing” would carry multiple meanings for an Elizabethan audience, all of them relevant to the story. Depending on which meaning you focus on, the title can highlight very different aspects of the play.
Our contemporary understanding of “nothing” seems to dismiss the seriousness of the story, suggesting the characters are making a big deal out of nothing. But in Elizabethan England, the word would have been pronounced, “noting,” giving it a double meaning. it could mean to notice something or someone, similar to the modern phrase, “take note.” Noting also was used to mean rumor or gossip, a key plot device in the play. Most lost to contemporary speakers of english was the use of “nothing” as a bawdy euphemism for a woman’s privates. This layered meaning allows the title to simultaneously claim that the characters are making a fuss over nothing, observations, rumors and relations between the genders.
Shakespeare often relied on outside sources for the plots of his plays, and Much Ado About Nothing is no exception. Claudio and Hero’s storyline most likely was drawn from both an italian poem and novella. Beatrice and Benedick’s romance, however, appears to be an entirely Shakespearean invention. This comedic sparring of wits and reversal from rivalry to romance is a compelling addition to a story that has brought audiences back to this play over the centuries.
While traditionally considered a comedy, Much Ado About Nothing uses its parallel storylines of the two sets of lovers to find balance between the dramatic and the comedic. Claudio and Hero’s story is one of deception and misunderstanding that nearly leads to tragedy, while Beatrice and Benedick’s uses the same tools for comedy and mischief. These two narratives foil each other and show how quickly rumors and falsehoods spoken in jest can turn to humiliation and heartbreak. The play is often considered one of Shakespeare’s finest comedies precisely because of its position on the knife’s edge between comedy and tragedy.
The “merry war” between Beatrice and Benedick comes on the heels of an actual war, fought with weapons instead of words. Shakespeare’s deft handling of genre in this play leaves us in a delightful comedy always treading on the edge of tragedy.
—Sarah Johnson, dramaturg
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