When Greg first approached me about directing for Hoosier Shakes, I told him that I was itchy to do Much Ado. Itchy is an understatement. I’ve been neck deep in tragedies and histories since directing Twelfth Night in 2014. While years are just numbers, since the last time I directed a comedy, I’ve gotten married, bought a house, earned two masters degrees, and founded a theatre company of my own. In that time, I’ve directed the Second Part of Henry VI, twice. And in 2013, I was seriously considering starting a theatre company dedicated to comedy exclusively. So while I was itchy to do Much Ado (more on that below), I was also just starving for comedy. Luckily, I get to do a couple this summer, first here, and then Knight of the Burning Pestle with the American Shakespeare Center Theatre Camp.
So why Much Ado? What is it about this silly little play that has me boldly telling a producer I’d never met which show I’d like to direct? It’s all in the title. Much Ado about Nothing. At first, it sounds like one of those “Shakespeare titles” that has nothing to do with the show, like As You Like It, What You Will, All’s Well that Ends Well, etc. I imagine all of those titles you can dig deeper as well, but that’s a tangent we don’t want to go down right now. Much Ado about Nothing is a densely rhetorical joke that works, by my count, on about 4 different levels.
To begin, he title is antithetical. Much Ado is chaos. Nothing is… nothing. So we worry a lot about nothing at all. That’s pretty much the play at its core. The play begins with a messenger delivering news that war is concluded and the boys are coming home. The play ends with a messenger coming in telling us that the villain has been apprehended, and the admonition to “think not on him till tomorrow.” Scholars tend to date this play around the same time as the Henry IV and Henry V plays, and Julius Caesar. By comparison, this play is about nothing.
Moreover, we’ve got the various and sundry meanings of the word “nothing.” It can refer to a non-entity or a non-speaker – such a one is Hero, the ingenue at the center of the play. While this play is celebrated for the grand battles of wit between Beatrice and Benedick, and the madcap antics of Dogberry and the Watch, the story centers on Hero and Claudio. Therefore, there is much ado about (around) nothing (Hero). The flashy distracts from the substance.
Secondarily, “nothing” is also a sexual pun, being Elizabethan slang for female genitalia. The play is obsessed with virginity, cuckoldry, and faithfulness. Since, short of a pregnancy, there is no physical evidence of an unfaithful spouse. It’s all reputation, which, as Iago would have it, “is an idle and most false imposition: oft got without merit, and lost without deserving” (Othello 2.3). The women are bound by their faithfulness to men, while the men (particularly Benedick) are celebrated and gently (if at all) chided about their promiscuity. Indeed, Benedick’s opposition to marriage is based in a fear of cuckoldry, while one of the first statements about him is that paternity of Hero is not in doubt because “Then you [Benedick] were a child” (Much Ado 1.1). Watch for the four women in the play – Beatrice, Hero, Margaret, and Ursula – and their relationships to sexuality, marriage, and men.
Thirdly, the word “nothing” was, to the Elizabethans, pronounced “noting.” At this point, you’ll be unsurprised to learn that “noting” also had three relevant meanings, all of which exist today. The first is “noting” as in overhearing. The play is full of observation, known and unknown, accurate and misunderstanding. Claudio asks Benedick if he “noted the daughter of Leonato”, to which Benedick remarks that he “noted her not, but I looked on her” (1.1). Antonio’s servant overhears (inaccurately) that the Prince intends to marry Hero, while Borachio (accurately) notes that the Prince will woo Hero for Claudio. Beatrice and Benedick overhear (deliberately) that the one loves the other, and are convinced to fall in love. And many more that you’ll see after intermission, and so I’ll save for those who do not know the play. Everything that happens in the play is the result of “noting” what others say or do.
“Noting” can also have a physical meaning, as in composing a note. I mentioned already the notes of the messengers that frame the play, which are again relevant here. At the risk of spoiling a 400 year old play, I’ll not go into how written notes finally bring the play to an end, but I encourage you to watch for it at the end of the play.
And, to conclude, “noting” is musical, as in the Prince’s “note notes, forsooth, and nothing” (2.3). The play’s dominant metaphor is in music. The songs of Balthasar, Claudio, and Benedick, and of the dances, are obvious. Within, we have references to measure, key, tune, verses, dances, ballads and so forth. Beatrice compares courtship and marriage to various dances, and was born under a dancing star (2.3). And, again, as the title would suggest, absence is as important as presence in terms of music. As you watch the play, listen for when we talk about music and dance, and when we don’t. What’s going on in the play when music is absent?
I have certainly rambled on long enough, and longer than I intended to. And so, I’ll leave you with nothing more.