Much Ado About Nothing
Stories about young women wrongly accused, brought close to death, and then rejoined with their lovers were really popular during the Renaissance. Shakespeare used that trope (which can be traced all the way back to the Greek romances) to make this light and silly comedy. The play trips along at a steady place as characters invent and pass on totally misleading information; watching this process as it undoes characters is like playing a 16th century game of Telephone.
This is a neat chance to watch Shakespeare shake a complex (sometimes unnecessarily complex) plot. Further, it’s a cool "study in progress" of Shakespeare: Beatrice and Benedick’s acidic romance is a more developed version of the hatred-turned-to-love from The Taming of the Shrew; and Don John, the inexplicably evil villain of this play, is a sort of character study for the inexplicably evil Iago of Shakespeare’s later play Othello.
Cast of Characters
The niece of Leonato and cousin of Hero (with Hero here).
Beatrice is extremely quick-witted and verbally adept, frequently amusing her relatives and friends with elaborate stories and jokes, often at her own expense. Though she is generous and good-hearted, she has a tendency to use her wit to mock and tease other people. Benedick is the target of her harshest mockery.She in fact loves him all along, as the audience knows; her own awareness comes only with the assurance that he loves her. Their relationship matures when they act together to defend her defamed cousin Hero at the crisis point of the play.
Beatrice bluntly disdains love, but her first words have already betrayed her interest in Benedick, although she covers it with a veneer of witty insults and teasing. She has suffered through an earlier, unhappy romance with Benedick, and her barbed wit is plainly defensive, disguising her true feelings even from herself. Her brashness is nicely contrasted with Hero's reticence: Hero is twice prompted about her response to the expected courtship of Don Pedro, and on both occasions Beatrice's comments against marriage prevent her reply.
Tricked into believing Benedick loves her, Beatice immediately discards her cynicism and swallows her pride, becoming elated at the thought.
Beatrice displays a spirited individuality, but in the end she willingly accepts a position subordinate to a man, as was conventionally expected of Elizabethan women. At first, denying that she wants or needs a husband, Beatrice asserts her independence, demonstrating the freedom of will that enlivens Shakespeare's most attractive female characters.
Beatrice is sometimes seen as shrewish, but this is a misconception; Shakespeare plainly intended to present a delightful young woman--defensive about love but charming and candid. While her repartee can be made to seem malicious or mean-spirited in performance, it is more fittingly delivered with great mirth and gaiety.
A gentleman soldier who has recently been fighting under Don Pedro, and a close friend of Don Pedro and Claudio. Like Beatrice, Benedick is very witty and fond of mocking other people with elaborate jokes, comparisons, and puns. He swears he will never marry, as he is very critical of women and does not trust any of them not to cheat on him.
Benedick is the willful lord, recently returned from fighting in the wars, who vows that he will never marry. He engages with Beatrice in a competition to outwit, outsmart, and out-insult the other, but to his observant friends, he seems to feel some deeper emotion below the surface. Upon hearing Claudio and Don Pedro discussing Beatrice’s desire for him, Benedick vows to be “horribly in love with her,” in effect continuing the competition by outdoing her in love and courtship (II.iii.207). Benedick is one of the most histrionic characters in the play, as he constantly performs for the benefit of others. He is the entertainer, indulging in witty hyperbole to express his feelings. He delivers a perfect example of his inflated rhetoric when Beatrice enters during the masked ball. Turning to his companions, Benedick grossly exaggerates how Beatrice has misused him, bidding his friends to send him to the farthest corners of the earth rather than let him spend one more minute with his nemesis: “Will your grace command me any service to the world’s end? I will go on the slightest errand now to the Antipodes that you can devise to send me on. I will fetch you a toothpicker from the furthest inch of Asia . . . do you any embassage to the pigmies, rather than hold three words’ conference with this harpy” (II.i.229–235). Of course, since Benedick is so invested in performing for the others, it is not easy for us to tell whether he has been in love with Beatrice all along or falls in love with her suddenly during the play. Benedick’s adamant refusal to marry does appear to change over the course of the play, once he decides to fall in love with Beatrice. He attempts to conceal this transformation from his friends but really might enjoy shocking them by shaving off his beard and professing undying love to Beatrice. This change in attitude seems most evident when Benedick challenges Claudio, previously his closest friend in the world, to duel to the death over Claudio’s accusation as to Hero’s unchaste behavior. There can be no doubt at this point that Benedick has switched his allegiances entirely over to Beatrice.
A young soldier who has won great acclaim fighting under Don Pedro during the recent wars. Claudio falls in love with Hero upon his return to Messina. Though he is valiant and loving, he is unfortunately gullible, quick to believe nasty rumors and to feel that he's been betrayed by those close to him.
Claudio is a model young Elizabethan. Even before he appears, he is extolled by the messenger as a paragon of knightly virtues. His youth and inexperience make him a plausible target for Don John's lies; his passive wooing of Hero, dependent on Don Pedro's assistance, emphasizes his vulnerability. He is often faulted for a seeming mercenary interest in Hero, but his inquiry about her inheritance is merely conventional: any young man of Shakespeare's day would ask such a question of a prospective bride, and the query simply demonstrates his interest in marriage. Gullible, he believes Hero has been unfaithful, but Shakespeare takes care to make his credulousness less ridiculous by having Don Pedro seem duped as well. The viciousness of Claudio's response indicates the extent to which he has been hurt by his seeming rejection. He regrets the anger of Leonato and Antonio, and they refrain from a violent response. Their awkward jesting confirms their embarrassment over the situation.Claudio's repentance and atonement are sometimes regarded as cursory and hypocritical, but Shakespeare treats them seriously.
A very important nobleman from Aragon, often referred to simply as “the Prince.” Don Pedro is a longtime friend of Leonato, Hero's father, and is also close to the soldiers who have been fighting under him—the younger Benedick and the very young Claudio. Don Pedro is generous, courteous, intelligent, and loving to his friends, but he is also quick to believe evil of others and hasty to take revenge. He is the most politically and socially powerful character in the play.
Of all the main characters in Much Ado About Nothing, Don Pedro seems the most elusive. He is the noblest character in the social hierarchy of the play, and his friends Benedick and Claudio, though equals in wit, must always defer to him because their positions depend upon his favor. Don Pedro has power, and he is well aware of it; whether or not he abuses this power is open to question. Unlike his bastard brother, the villain Don John, Don Pedro most often uses his power and authority toward positive ends. But like his half-brother, Don Pedro manipulates other characters as much as he likes. For instance, he insists on wooing Hero for Claudio himself, while masked, rather than allowing Claudio to profess his love to Hero first. Of course, everything turns out for the best—Don Pedro’s motives are purely in the interest of his friend. But we are left wondering why Don Pedro feels the need for such an elaborate dissimulation merely to inform Hero of Claudio’s romantic interest. It seems simply that it is Don Pedro’s royal prerogative to do exactly as he wishes, and no one can question it. Despite his cloudy motives, Don Pedro does work to bring about happiness. It is his idea, for instance, to convince Beatrice and Benedick that each is in love with the other and by doing so bring the two competitors together. He orchestrates the whole plot and plays the role of director in this comedy of wit and manners. Don Pedro is the only one of the three gallants not to end up with a wife at the end. Benedick laughingly jokes in the final scene that the melancholy prince must “get thee a wife” in order to enjoy true happiness (V.iv.117). The question necessarily arises as to why Don Pedro is sad at the end of a joyous comedy. Perhaps his exchange with Beatrice at the masked ball—in which he proposes marriage to her and she jokingly refuses him, taking his proposal as mere sport—pains him; perhaps he is truly in love with Beatrice. The text does not give us a conclusive explanation for his melancholy, nor for his fascination with dissembling. This uncertainly about his character helps to make him one of the most thought-provoking characters in the play.
Don Pedro's illegitimate half brother, sometimes referred to simply as “the Bastard.” Don John is melancholy and sullen by nature, and he creates a dark scheme to ruin the happiness of Hero and Claudio.
He is the villain of the play, his evil actions motivated mainly by his envy of his brother's power and authority.With the help of his follower Borachio, he slanders Hero, seeing her then rejected on the day of her wedding. The plot is uncovered accidentally, and Don John, after fleeing from Messina, is captured and brought back.
Don John resents Claudio because of the battle before the story beings, in which Claudio assured Don John's overthrow. Claudio's advancement in Don Pedro's court has come at Don John's expense. However, this motive is relatively unimportant; Don John plots to cause as much trouble to those around him as he can, apparently out of an evil nature. His is a generalized, undirected discontent; he envies other people's happiness and is therefore misanthropic.
Although Borachio compares him to the devil in 3.3.145-151, Don John is a slight figure, a study for a portrait of a villain. He lacks the human complexity of any of Shakespeare's larger, more fully developed characters. Don John is a simple stereotype, intended cheifly to advance the plot of a comedy, offering just enough evil to necessitate a triumph for happiness but not enough to evoke terror.
The beautiful young daughter of Leonato, and cousin to Beatrice.
Hero is lovely, gentle, and innocent. She is a demure and pliant maid, a conventional representative of the Elizabethan ideal of docile womanhood. She accepts an arranged marriage, first to Don Pedro then Claudio. She is pleasant and has enough sparkle to engage in the ploy whereby her cousin Beatrice is tricked into accepting Benedick's love, but she largely lacks personality and spirit. A pawn, first proffered in marriage to Claudio and then rejected by him, she can only faint when unjustly accused of promiscuity.
Leonato (far left of photo)
Leonato's elderly brother, and Hero and Beatrice's uncle. Although he is elderly, he is loyal to his brother no matter what the cost.
Borachio and Conrade
Borachio is an associate of Don John, and the lover of Margaret, Hero's serving woman. Borachio conspires with Don John to trick Claudio and Don Pedro into thinking that Hero is unfaithful to Claudio. His name means “drunkard” in Italian.
Conrade is one of Don John's intimate associates, entirely devoted to Don John and his schemes.
Dogberry and Verges
The chief policeman of Messina, in charge of the watch. Dogberry is very sincere and takes his job seriously, but he has a habit of using exactly the wrong word to convey his meaning. Dogberry is one of the few middle-class characters in the play, though his desire to speak formally and elaborately like the noblemen becomes an occasion for parody.
Verges is the deputy to Dogberry, chief policeman of Messina, second in command. His eager assistance is always rejected by his superior, who prefers to do things himself. Though praised, Verges has little personality, being rather like the other watchmen in their confusion and comical misuse of language.
(Far Right of photo)
One of Hero's waiting women. A cheerful member of Leonato's court, she has no important function and little personality. She flirts with the aged Antonio at the masque and she helps her mistress fool Beatrice into believing Benedick loves her.
Don Pedro, Prince of Arragon, pays a visit to Leonata, the governor of Messina, while returning from a victorious campaign against his rebellious brother, Don John. Accompanying him are two of his officers, Benedick and Claudio. While in Messina, Claudio falls for Leonato's daughter, Hero; Benedick verbally spars with Beatrice, the governor's niece. The budding love between Claudio and Hero prompts Don Pedro to arrange with Leonato for the marriage.
Meanwhile, the trickery begins as Don Pedro (with the help of Leonato and Claudio) attempts to sport with Benedick and Beatrice in an effort to make the two of them fall in love. Likewise, Hero and her waiting woman help to set up Beatrice. Both Benedick and Beatrice will think that the other has professed a great love for them.
The marriage of Claudio to Hero is set to go. Don John—ostensibly reconciled with his brother—despises Claudio, however, and plots against him. First, he tells Claudio that Pedro wants Hero for himself; next, he enlists the aid of his henchman Borachio and one of Hero's gentlewomen disguised as Hero to stage an encounter that will bring Hero's virtue into question. Claudio falls for the ruse and denounces Hero at the altar. Friar Francis helps her, hiding her away and enlisting the aid of Leonata, who announces that his daughter has died of grief from the proceeding.
Fortunately for Hero, Borachio is arrested while drunkenly boasting of his part in the plan (and the 1,000 ducats paid him). With Borachio's confession, Hero is to be exonerated. Leonato demands a public apology from Claudio, then tells him that he will allow Claudio to marry one of his nieces in Hero's place—a niece that turns out to be none other than Hero herself. Claudio and Hero are reunited, Benedick and Beatrice will wed alongside them, and they receive the news that the bastard Don John has been apprehended.
Study Guides/Scripts of the Play
http://www.shakespeare-online.com/plots/muchadops.html (use this as an easier English prose format)