Much Ado About…Something

It’s certainly no secret that William Shakespeare was excellent at wordplay, and his play Much Ado About Nothing is a prime example of this. From its witty puns to its verbal beatdowns and double-entendres (the name “Benedick” alone is enough to make me giggle), the play proves over and over again the extent to which the playwright could manipulate the English language. My personal favorite bit of linguistic gymnastics in the play comes from the title itself. On the surface, calling a play Much Ado About Nothing would seem to signify that there isn’t any real matter to it, or that the events which unfold between the first and last beats of action carry no weight. On the contrary, dissecting the title’s varied implications can unlock a great deal of meaning.

The first interpretation, and perhaps the most obvious, is to take the title at face value. It’s “much ado” (or a whole lot of fuss) about nothing. To someone who has never seen the play, they could at the very least gather from the title that there’s going to be a whole lot of commotion over…nothing. The play will end and said commotion will have been unnecessary or uncalled for. In some ways, this isn’t totally wrong; it would be safe to say that Act 5 concludes with something like a happy ending (spoiler: in true Shakespearean comedy fashion, it ends with multiple weddings). However, it would be misleading to say that nothing happens, because then what would be the point of doing the play in the first place? Drama is usually the result of some kind of action which drives the story from point A to point B, and the fun comes from characters being faced with problems they need to find solutions to. So, while this interpretation can help us understand the outcome of the play in general terms, it doesn’t go nearly far enough to tell us what the play will actually be about.

Which brings us to another titular interpretation: looking closely at the word “nothing”. When Shakespeare was writing this play in the late 16th century, English was a much less standardized and more fluid language than it is today. Even the pronunciations of words could be manipulated to fit a line of verse or to follow through on a pun. With this in mind, what happens if we take the “h” sound out of “nothing” and slightly alter the pronunciation? We get “noting”. To note something, or to notice it, is to bring it into our awareness in a way that sticks out—a definition Shakespeare would have been familiar with in his day. In other words, this interpretation brings to light a delightful pun: that this play is much ado about noting, or taking notice of things. Considering how much eavesdropping and planting of false information happens in this play, this new title suddenly reveals a major theme: a great deal of what people learn in this play, especially about other people, comes second-hand and quite often because they were listening in on someone else’s conversation. The things that they note about other people is a huge catalyst for the drama which unfolds. The importance of the information they learn through eavesdropping is reflected in the third, and I think most vital, treatment of the title.

For this next interpretation, it’s important to understand the social dynamics of the play. It isn’t just divided into eavesdroppers and the eavesdropped, but into even simpler terms: separation between men and women. The gender binary as represented in this play is about as stark as it gets, with each gender having very specific behavioral expectations. Thus, there is meaning to be found in the idea of this play being much ado about “no thing”. Yes, you read that right and yes, I mean exactly what you think I mean. Given this treatment of the title, one can gather that the play will largely be about the ways that women are different from men; while “thing” versus “no thing” reduces people to their biology, the play will to a greater extent explore differences in societal expectations between those who identify as male and female. Benedick and Beatrice are the obvious examples of this binary, since neither of them fit into their designated “roles” as man and woman, but I would argue that every character in this play fulfills a societal function which in one way or another speaks directly to the patriarchal society of Messina (where the play takes place). The arcs of the lovers, the tension between Don John and the world around him, the difference between domestic and military life, and even Leonato’s silent (and often missing) wife are all represented in this reading of the title. In a world with such rigid societal structure, what happens to the people who break those structures? More importantly, what happens to those who play into and take advantage of it?

On their own, any of these three readings of the title give some level of insight into the play. However, the meaning is most powerful when all of these interpretations are allowed to coexist. To say that this play—in which men and women are often pitted against each other and in which information nearly always comes second-hand through eavesdropping and hearsay—amounts to “nothing”, feels tongue-in-cheek.

Unfortunately, we can’t possibly know what Shakespeare truly felt about his play’s title and events; after all, part of what draws many of us to his work is his personal ambiguity. That being said, he’s been dead for 400 years, and we in the 21st century have the opportunity to look at this play through our own lens and decide what meaning we want to imbue it with. As our talented cast works on this play in ASC’s signature Actors’ Renaissance style—that is, without a director and relying on collaborative staging—I am confident that their thoughtfulness and care will translate into much ado about something. What that “something” IS is up to them, but I anticipate it will be insightful, timely, and perhaps even transformative. Join us for a performance to discover that “something” together!

Much Ado About Nothing will join the rest of ASC’s Summer Season starting on July 21. Join us now through August 13 at the Blackfriars Playhouse for three epic Shakespeare comedies, Taming of the Shrew, Measure for Measure, and Much Ado About Nothing. Check out our full calendar of events and book your tickets today!