Much Ado About Nothing--the title sounds, to a modern ear, offhand and self-effacing; we might expect the play that follows such a beginning to be a marvelous piece of fluff and not much more. However, the play and the title itself are weightier than they initially seem. Shakespeare used two other such titles--Twelfth Night, or What You Will and As You Like It--both of which send unexpected reverberations of meaning throughout their respective plays, the former with its reference to the Epiphany and the topsy-turvy world of a saturnalian celebration, and the latter with its implications about how the characters (and the audience itself) see the world in general and the Forest of Arden in particular.
Much Ado About Nothing is no different, but we do not pick up the deeper resonances as quickly as an Elizabethan would, simply because of a shift in pronunciation. We get our first real glimpse of the pun in the title when Don Pedro says, "Note notes, forsooth, and nothing!" (The Complete Signet Classic Shakespeare, ed. Sylvan Barnet, New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, Inc., 1972, 2.3.57). As A. R. Humphreys explains, "That 'nothing', colloquially spoken, was close to or identical with 'noting' is the basis of Shakespearean puns, especially in a context of musical 'noting'. A similar pun, though non-musical, is conceivable here" (Introduction, The Arden Shakespeare: Much Ado About Nothing, London and New York: Methuen, 1981, 4).
The play is, in fact, driven by the "noting" of scenes or conversations and the characters' reactions to these observations; "noting" seems to be the thematic glue that binds the various plot elements together. When he wrote the play in ...
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...spite their lack of sophistication and their abuse of the English language, Dogberry, Verges and the rest of the Watch discover Don John's plotting and manage to sort out the confusion created by the aristocrats. "Much Ado is," as John Wilders says, "a play about 'noting', about the various and conflicting ways in which we respond to and judge other people" (147). It is about the flexibility of reality-- our ability to manipulate what other people observe and our occasional tendency to let biases influence our perceptions. And finally, it is about the inadequacy of "noting" the world with eyes and ears only, and the importance of relying on one's experience with and consequent faith in other human beings. Much Ado is all this, and marvelous comedy too.
Shakespeare, William. Much Ado about Nothing. Ed. A.R. Humphreys. New York: Routledge, 1994.
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