Here is a summary of the plot, and as always, I hope it will entice you to read the actual play. This play is very funny, but there are also some very dark themes. The witty banter between the characters, especially Benedick and Beatrice, can be a bit hard to follow, but it is nonstop and very entertaining. Dogberry and his bumbling cohorts are also very amusing. This play is quite short. I hope you will read it!
If anyone sees any errors, let me know so I can fix them—this is just based on my casual reading of the text, so I could easily have things out of order or get the details wrong.
Without further ado, here’s… Much Ado About Nothing.
In short, we could call this Three Weddings and a Funeral (although neither the weddings nor the funeral actually take place during the play!). The play is set in Messina (Sicily). The plot centers on Hero and Claudio’s relationship. They plan to marry, but on the night before the wedding, the villainous Don John tricks Claudio into believing that Hero is an unworthy whore. Claudio jilts her at the altar, causing Hero to faint, and it appears she is dead. Her family hides her, hoping Claudio will miss her and feel remorse. Eventually, thanks to the bumbling Dogberry and the watchmen, the truth comes out, and Hero is proved innocent. Claudio and Hero end up marrying.
It’s interesting because Shakespeare creates the plot around fairly minor, unengaging characters. Hero doesn’t speak much; Claudio is immature and not very likable. Even more interesting is that the plot moves along due to the actions of Don John, an incredibly leaden character who speaks almost not at all in the play!
None of this sounds very funny, does it? The play is quite light-hearted. The fun centers on the banter between the main characters, Benedick and Beatrice. These two have very little to do with the plot, but everything to do with the fun of the play. They begin as bantering adversaries. The other characters see the potential love connection and conspire to bring the two together. Their efforts are fruitful. B&B get married at the end along with Hero and Claudio!
The Soldiers Return
The play opens with a messenger arriving to tell Leonato, the governor of Messina, that Don Pedro and his soldiers are returning from battle and will arrive shortly. Leonato’s niece, Beatrice, asks the messenger if Benedick is returning with the others (he is) and she goes off on a witty tangent about him. She asks who Benedick is hanging out with these days, and the messenger tells her Claudio. This sends the sharp-tongued Beatrice into another tirade.
Don Pedro and his men arrive and Leonato greets them warmly. There is some “guy talk” — lighthearted joking about whether Leonato is Hero’s father (so his wife told him and he didn’t have any reason to doubt her since Benedick was but a child at the time, har, har). Benedick goes on a bit longer than necessary and Beatrice makes fun of him for continuing to talk when no one is listening. This gets the two of them going at each other for the first time in the play. Their witfest is pretty much non-stop whenever the two are near each other. They each profess to being happy if they never marry and neither can stand the other.
In the meantime, Don Pedro has been catching Leonato up on the latest news. Don Pedro agrees to stay in Messina for at least a month. Leonato also invites Don Pedro’s brother Don John, who has been off sulking by himself.
Claudio has seen Hero and has fallen in love. Benedick teases him mercilessly, but Claudio is starry-eyed. Don Pedro thinks she’s a lovely girl and a good match for Claudio.
Benedick makes it clear that he doesn’t trust women and will happily stay a bachelor forever. Don Pedro takes this as a challenge and tells Benedick he’ll see him fall in love. There is much, much, much joking (here and throughout the play) about cuckold horns (referring to women being unfaithful).
Don Pedro and Claudio continue their discussion about Hero, and Pedro offers to help Claudio win her hand. They are attending a masked dance that night, and Don Pedro will pretend to be Claudio, woo Hero, discuss marriage with her father Leonato, and do this all on Claudio’s behalf.
This conversation is overheard and discussed twice. Leonato’s brother Antonio hears it from his servant, and gets it all wrong. Antonio tells Leonato that Don Pedro is going to woo Hero and ask Leonato if he (Don Pedro) can marry her.
Then, Don John, busy telling his man Conrad about how unhappy he is, hears the real story from his man Borachio. Don John is very jealous of Claudio’s closeness with his brother Don Pedro, so hatches a plan to hurt Claudio.
The Masked Dance
Don Pedro makes a beeline for Hero and they dance. A number of other couples dance and chat. B&B spar, with the sharp-tongued Beatrice acting like she doesn’t know that she’s speaking to Benedick, so she says mean things, calling Benedick the prince’s jester and a very dull fool.
Don John tells Claudio that Don Pedro woos Hero for himself. Claudio believes him. When Benedick tells Claudio that Don Pedro was successful in wooing Hero, Claudio leaves in anger to sulk (thinking that Don Pedro wooed her for himself). Benedick tells Don Pedro and Don Pedro says he’ll make it right with Claudio.
Pedro teases Benedick about quarrelling with Beatrice. Benedick is nearly overcome just remembering the conversation with Beatrice. Then, when she approaches, he comes up with a number of hilarious errands he hopes Pedro will send him on to the far reaches of the known world, just to avoid having to hear Beatrice’s voice again. He escapes before she corners him again.
Here Beatrice mentions to Don Pedro that she had once before fallen in love with Benedick and that he deceived her and hurt her. This explains some of her bitterness toward Benedick.
Claudio arrives in a huff and Don Pedro sets him straight, explaining that he wooed Hero in Claudio’s name, as promised, and all is well. While Claudio and Hero get cozy, Don Pedro teasingly proposes to Beatrice. Beatrice turns him down lightly and leaves to run an errand for her uncle Leonato.
Don Pedro tells Leonato that Beatrice would be a fine wife for Benedick. Leonato points out, “O Lord, my lord, if they were but a week married, they would talk themselves mad.” (II.1.333-334)
Leonato asks Claudio to wait a week to marry Hero. Don Pedro hatches a plan to get B&B together while they wait for Claudio and Hero’s wedding. Claudio, Hero and Leonato agree to help.
The Plot Thickens
Borachio tells Don John that Claudio plans to marry Hero, but that Borachio knows how he can put a stop to it. He says Don John should tell Claudio that Hero is disloyal and get him worked up about it. For proof, he should bring Don Pedro and Claudio to stand outside Hero’s window. Borachio says that Hero’s maid Margaret has a thing for him, and that she will go to Hero’s window with him and he’ll call her Hero and it will fool Claudio and Don Pedro. Don John loves the plan and promises to pay Borachio well if it works.
Baiting the Hooks
Benedick is busy talking to himself about how happy he is being a bachelor and how no woman will ever catch him. He hides when he hears others approach.
Don Pedro and Claudio see Benedick hiding. They ask Balthasar to sing. He sings his song:
Sigh no more, ladies, sigh no more,
Men were deceivers ever,
One foot in sea and one on shore,
To one thing constant never:
Then sigh not so, but let them go,
And be you blithe and bonny,
Converting all your sounds of woe
Into Hey nonny, nonny.
Sing no more ditties, sing no moe,
Of dumps so dull and heavy;
The fraud of men was ever so,
Since summer first was leafy:
Then sigh not so, & c.
After the song, Leonato, Claudio and Don Pedro proceed to bait the hook for Benedick. They know he is eavesdropping, so they go on at length about how much Beatrice loves Benedick and how she is sick with love for him, but can’t say anything and he would just make fun of her and torment her if he knew. They lay it on so thick. So thick. Here’s an example:
Then down upon her knees she falls, weeps, sobs,
beats her heart, tears her hair, prays, curses; ‘O
sweet Benedick! God give me patience!’
They are so ridiculous, and Benedick hardly believes them except that he can’t imagine Leonato would be in on a mean joke like this. So, Benedick believes that Beatrice loves him and it awakens his love for her.
So, Benedick is reeled in. Now the other hook is baited. Margaret tells Beatrice to go out in the garden because Hero and Ursula are talking about her. Beatrice runs out and hides herself so she can eavesdrop. Ursula and Hero go on and on about how much Benedick loves Beatrice but that Beatrice is too scornful and proud to even tell about it. They lay it on thick. They reel her in. She believes them, her love for Benedick awakens, she must requite it!
Leonato, Claudio and Don Pedro see Benedick and joke that he must be in love (he’s shaved his beard and wearing cologne).
The Window Scene
Don John tells Don Pedro and Claudio that Hero is disloyal and that he can prove it if they meet him beneath her window that night. Claudio believes Don John and vows to disgrace Hero at the altar. Don Pedro agrees.
The window scene is pivotal to the plot of Much Ado About Nothing, and yet Shakespeare doesn’t include the scene in the play. He alludes to it, we see the fallout from it later, but it isn’t staged.
Dogberry and the Watch
Dogberry is the constable, in charge of the watchmen, Messina’s security force. He is a crazy ridiculous character. Much of the time, he says the exact opposite of what he means. A fair amount of the time, he just makes up words. He says everything very seriously, and it all seems to make sense to him! I have to admit he does not always make sense to me.
So, on his first appearance in the play, Dogberry gives the watchmen their orders for the night. And he tells them they should be quiet and fall asleep on the job. And they should mess with the Prince (Don Pedro) if they see him. That kind of thing. It’s odd! ( But funny.) The watchmen take it all in stride and seem satisfied that they know what to do!
Conrad and Borachio (from the Spanish word for “drunken”) chat about “the window scene” that was not seen on stage. That is, Borachio boasts to Conrad about being with Margaret at Hero’s window and calling her Hero while Claudio, Don Pedro and Don Juan watched from below. The watchmen overhear the conversation and arrest both Conrad and Borachio.
In the morning, Hero gets ready for her wedding, and there is much discussion between her and Margaret about the fashion of her gown.
Dogberry and his sidekick Verges try to tell Leonato that they have arrested two suspicious men who they think Leonato should see. However, they are so roundabout and annoying that Leonato loses patience and tells them to examine the suspects themselves and give him the executive summary later. He is too busy getting ready for his daughter’s wedding to be dealing with the bumbling Dogberry.
The Wedding, Interrupted
This is a truly cruel and awful scene. The wedding begins and Hero is blissfully ignorant that anything is wrong. Claudio and Don Pedro say nothing of what they’d witnessed the night before (they think they saw Hero having sex with Borachio at her window) until after Friar Francis begins the ceremony. At this point Claudio starts railing about Hero being a whore and Don Pedro backs him up.
Hero is dumbstruck. She can barely speak. She can barely defend herself. She simply says:
I talked with no man at that hour, my lord.
Claudio, Don Pedro and Don John go on about what they saw, and Leonato believes them. When her father turns on her, Hero faints dead away. Claudio, Don Pedro, and Don John leave.
Friar Francis believes Hero is innocent and unjustly accused. He comes up with a plan to pretend that Hero is dead, hoping that Claudio will miss her and see how good she really is. And failing that, they can send her off secretly to a convent.
Up to this point, Benedick and Beatrice have been flirtatious and silly, but here is a turning point in their relationship. Beatrice is sick about her cousin Hero and knows she is innocent. Benedick asks what he can do to help, and Beatrice replies, shockingly, “Kill Claudio.” (IV.1.288)
At first, Benedick cannot believe she asked this of him, but they keep talking and slowly Benedick comes to understand the depth of Beatrice’s feelings about Hero’s innocence and Claudio’s treachery. She would do it herself if she were a man. Benedick finally agrees to challenge Claudio.
Dogberry is an Ass
The watchmen describe to Dogberry the conversation they overheard between Borachio and Conrad. Dogberry has the sexton write everything down so that they can show it to Leonato. As always, Dogberry is very roundabout and back asswards in his speech, and Conrad actually calls him an ass. Dogberry is utterly offended and cannot believe anyone would say such a thing.
The next part of the play I see as a sort of limbo. Everything is in uproar. Leonato tells his brother Antonio how sad he is for his daughter Hero. Antonio is angry and lets loose a tirade on Claudio. Claudio and Don Pedro close ranks and deny slandering Hero — they are confident in the whoring they saw at the window. Claudio is very callous to the old men and acts like he doesn’t care that Hero is dead.
Benedick arrives and Claudio hopes his usual wit and humor will lighten the mood. Twit. Benedick is in an evil mood toward Claudio and threatens him. Don Pedro tries to lighten things up by teasing about Beatrice, but Benedick will have none of it. He tells Don Pedro he can no longer be friends and he will fight Claudio. He tells them they have killed an innocent lady and that Don John has fled the city. Don Pedro is very surprised that Benedick takes this all so seriously.
Dogberry walks by with Conrad and Borachio bound. Don Pedro recognizes his brother Don John’s men and asks why they are detained. Borachio, now penitent, tells the whole story of the window scene and the deception and says that Margaret was innocent. Borachio takes full responsibility for Hero’s death. Claudio cannot believe his ears.
Leonato comes and Borachio also tells him the story and takes responsibility for Hero’s death. Leonato tells him that his guilt is shared with Claudio, Don Pedro and Don John.
Leonato tells them to hang an epitaph at Hero’s tomb, explaining her innocence. He then tells Claudio he is forgiven and that he will give his neice to Claudio in marriage the next day. Claudio can’t believe his good fortune! He agrees to the marriage, sight unseen.
Dogberry is still upset about Conrad calling him an ass, and he tells Leonato all about it, hoping this will increase his punishment. Leonato gives Dogberry some money to thank him for his good work and to get him to leave.
The Happy Ending
Margaret teases Benedick as he tries to write a love sonnet to Beatrice. He is so besotted he stumbles over the rhymes. When Beatrice arrives she asks what happened with Claudio and Benedick says he challenged him. This changes their mood to witty banter regarding what they first loved in each other.
Ursula arrives with the breaking news that all has been set straight in Messina. Hero was falsely accused, Don Pedro and Claudio were misled, everything was the evil Don John’s doing, and he has left the city.
Claudio and Don Pedro put the epitaph on Hero’s “grave.” Claudio promises to return annually in her memory.
Everyone is glad at the happy turn of events. Benedick is relieved that he does not need to fight Claudio. Leonato tells the women that he will call for them and he wants them to come masked when he calls.
Benedick asks Leonato if he can marry Beatrice. Leonato agrees. Don Pedro and Claudio show up at Leonato’s house as planned. Leonato asks Claudio if he is still willing to marry his niece and Claudio agrees. There is much needling back and forth between Claudio and Benedick.
The women come out masked. Claudio agrees to marry the niece unseen. She then unveils herself and it is Hero! She’s not dead! They are all shocked to see Hero alive. She assures Claudio she is still a virgin. Leonato explains that Hero was only “dead” while the slander against her lived.
Benedick asks which masked woman is Beatrice. She comes forward. There is a little friction between them as they argue a bit and realize that their love was based on the tricks played by the others. However, Claudio pulls out one of Benedick’s love sonnets to Beatrice and handily, Hero has one Beatrice wrote to Benedick, and they both give in and accept their love for each other.
So, Claudio is ready to marry Hero, and Benedick is ready to marry Beatrice, and Benedick calls for the weddings to be delayed so they can dance. A messenger arrives with the news that Don John has been caught and returned to Messina. Benedick is too festive and says they will deal with him tomorrow. Now, let’s have some music!
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