How the language of Much Ado About Nothing support its themes and its performance

December, 2020

Much Ado About Nothing is a play which incessantly keep its characters in a state of confusion. Be it symbolically through its frequent use of masks such as in act two scene one,[1] or in a more literal sense, such as when Benedick falsely believes he is hidden from Leonato, Claudio and Don Pedro,[2] it is a theme which one cannot help but notice. The consequential engagement required to concentrate on the material is applicable to both contemporary audiences as well as the audience of the period. To lower-class renaissance patrons, this confusion would be in itself amusing. To a more educated or contemporary audience however, this intense concentration would immerse them into the story, and thusly result in the formation of a stronger bond with the characters who are so oblivious to the actual goings-on. This theme is presented in no better way than through the play’s language, in varying ways.

Indeed, much like how Taming of the Shrew thrives upon its bizarre and strange qualities, Much Ado also seems to thrive upon its main themes. These themes are made apparent to the audience through its title, giving patrons an idea of what the play will be like before they have watched it.[3] As Diana Henderson notes, ‘Nowhere is the play of confusion among sight, sound, and word more overt than in Much Ado About Nothing, whose very title announces the interpretive duplicity that can become the stuff of either comedy or tragedy'.[4]

While to a modern audience, the title of the play may appear quite singular in its definition, to a renaissance audience, where words like ‘nothing’ had many different connotations, multiple different interpretations blossom. For example, ‘nothing was slang for the female genitalia’[5] at the time, so one could argue that by putting something so taboo as that of female genitalia in the title, its framing itself to be a play full of controversy in and of itself. It also provides us with a glimpse into what the culture of the period would have been like. Shakespeare was primarily an entertainer looking to make a living. his plays were often viewed by boisterous patrons after a day of work, and so this double entendre could have been a persuasive technique to entice a rowdy, male assemblage into viewing the performance, on account of its reference to female genitalia.

The nothing within the title could also refer to the characters within the play, as well. Don John is the character which many see as the primary ‘villain’ within the performance, and yet despite the crucial consequences of his plotting, ‘he himself has very little stage time’,[6] with only forty speeches in total. By having the villain of the performance appear so infrequently compared to the other characters, the title could be hinting that what transpires is the result of ‘nothing’, referencing Don John’s lack of presence upon the stage. Looking at the word ‘nothing’ from a less literal perspective, it could also come from the fact that two of the, arguably, most dull characters in the play, Claudio and Hero, have the majority of stage presence and attention within the play. The nothing in this case would then refer to the characters lack of substance and personality, but also their perpetual presence within the performance as well. 

With this in mind, for every relatively dull character in Much Ado, there are also entertaining characters as well.An example of an objectively entertaining character for example is Dogberry, who Lerner notes, ‘exaggerates, by accident and in self-satisfied ignorance, the processes by which the true wit divert the meanings of words deliberately, knowingly, and with pride in their craft'.[7] Dogberry is fully aware of his role within the play. He accepts his role as a satire of the Elizabethan constabulary, as his apprehension of Borachio was completely inadvertent. The very idea that a constable who actually solves the dispute in question would have been humorous to a renaissance audience, as the constabulary were notorious for being incompetent on account of them being far from what we would consider a formal police force. The watchmen’s comments on their duty in the play reflect this, as they note ‘We will rather sleep than talk; we know what belongs to a watch’.[8] As a result, Dogberry, much like Petruccio in Taming Of The Shrew[9], ‘takes great delight in inhabiting the topsy-turvy world of his…’.[10]  

Dogberry is also shown to use incorrect grammatical form frequently in Much Ado. In Act 5 scene 1 for example, when asked to state the list of offences which Conrade and Borachio have committed, he says ‘they have spoken untruths, secondarily… sixth and lastly… thirdly…and to conclude, they are lying knaves.[11] This breach of standard grammatical and syntactical form is humorous for a myriad of reasons. For one, as shown in the 1984 BBC performance, Dogberry is portrayed to say this line with great confidence,[12] and so the response from Claudio and Don Pedro, in conjunction with his supposed authority as chief constable, contribute to the hilarity.


There are also instances where both dull and entertaining characters come together in the same scene. In Act 1.1 for example, Claudio and Benedick are both on stage at the same time, talking about Hero. In the line ‘'Thou thinkst I am in sport. I pray thee tell me truly how thou lik'st her',[13] the tone of Claudio’s utterance is often played in a drab way in performance.[14] It also gives the audience an early idea of Claudio’s character, as it foreshadows his eventual fear of Hero's unfaithfulness by asking for 'corroboration of Hero's universal desirability’[15] from Benedick. As Mulryne notes, ‘Claudio lacks confidence in himself and is readily given to suspecting others…’.[16]

Benedick's language, contrastively, is much more interesting as he strays away from the conventional discourse of the period, alongside his intonation being much more varied than Claudio.[17] This serves the purpose of immersing the audience further into the play, as they must now 'note' the differences between these two protagonists.

What’s interesting, however, is when characters begin to change the way they speak. Referring to Claudio again, during his famous outburst in act four, several of the characters are appalled at his accusations.[18] This shock is a reflection of how appalling the Elizabethans would have found this scene, as the sheer notion of insulting your spouse in such a vulgar way was unthinkable. This shock also derives from the subversion of their expectations. Claudio has been intentionally drab throughout the performance, relative to other characters, on account of his adherence to the accepted discourse of the period. So, to all of a sudden have a jarring reversal of character would certainly surprise the average attentive viewer, thus compelling them even further into the plot.

One of the most critical linguistic features which contributes to Claudio’s outburst being a shocking spectacle is his use of monosyllabic phrases. Gerber notes that ‘monosyllabic speech evokes the raw force of a rudimentary reimagination of the world'.[19] When Claudio uses monosyllables in his speech at the altar, it serves to heighten the intense emotion felt in this scene. They represent a psychological breakdown as to what he believes is true and what is false, as his perspective on Hero shifts into one of hate and contempt. For example, in the line ‘but fare thee well, most foul, most fair’,[20] by using the contrasting words 'foul' and 'fair'  in conjunction with a monosyllabic phrase, it positions him as a character who is angry and spiteful, unlike anything the audience has seen before from him.

It should be also noted that, from a structural perspective, monosyllabic phrases are a verbal cue to the speaker that they need to slow down which, depending on the genre of the play, have many different effects. In tragedies such as Hamlet, tension is created as Hamlet prepares for a dramatic monologue.[21] In Taming of The Shrew, it is used to comedic effect, for example when Hortensio notes he ‘would not wed her [Kate] for a mine of gold’.[22] Much Ado combines these two applications to blur the lines on the play’s identity as a tragedy or a comedy. While Claudio’s aforementioned usage breeds tragedy in relation to the plays theme of misinformation, monosyllabic use from a character such as Dogberry breeds humour, as his misinformed views are articulated with slow and succinct confidence.[23] As a result, Much Ado has been labelled by critics as a ‘problem play’, on account of their plots being ‘so unpleasant that they seem to need another grouping altogether’.[24]

To Conclude, Much Ado About Nothing uses language in incredibly succinct ways. While some of these features are very much context-bound to the period of its performance, many of them stand the test of time and have their own impact on a modern-day audience. Through these linguistic features, the audience is immersed further and further into the performance as it continues. Character nuances are picked up on, and the overarching message of confusion and deceit is applied as the audience is inadvertently tasked with keeping watch of the deceit and the lies, and the subsequent impact it has on the characters. It is for that reason that Much Ado is labelled as a such a complex play, and why it will likely continue to keep this crown for generations to come.


[1] William, S, Claire, M (ed), Much Ado About Nothing (Bloomsbury Publishing PLC, 3rd edition, 2016) pp. 215-239.

[2] Ibid, pp.242-257.

[3] This technique sees use nowadays in many pantomime performances, further suggesting that ‘Modern pantomime is a bastardised descendent of the dramatic stereotype used by Shakespeare and his contemporaries’ – Paul, Innes, Shakespeare: The Barriers Removed (Studymates limited, 2005) p.38.

[4] Diana E. Henderson, ‘Mind the Gaps: The Ear, the Eye, and the Senses of a Woman 

in Much Ado About Nothing’, in Knowing Shakespeare: Scenes, Embodiment and Cognition, ed. Lowell Gallagher and Shankar Rama (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2010), p.193. 

[5] Paul, Innes, ‘Sensory Confusion and the generation gap in Much Ado About Nothing’, Critical Survey, 2014, vol.26, pp. 1-20, p.1.

[6] Paul, Innes, Shakespeare: The Barriers Removed (Studymates limited, 2005) p.44.

[7] Laurence, Lerner, Shakespeare’s comedies: an anthology of modern criticism (Penguin, 1967), p.186.

[8] William, S, Claire, M (ed), Much Ado About Nothing (Bloomsbury Publishing PLC, 3rd edition, 2016), p. 276.

[9] Reference to Taming of the shrew.

[10] Paul, Innes, Shakespeare: The Barriers Removed (Studymates limited, 2005) p.44.

[11] Much Ado About Nothing, pp. 332-333.

[12] ‘Much Ado About Nothing’, The BBC Television Shakespeare Project by Stuart Burge, BBC, 22nd December 1984, [accessed 18th December 2019], 2:01:25 – 2:01:40.

[13] Much Ado About Nothing, p. 198.

[14] ‘Much Ado About Nothing’, The BBC Television Shakespeare Project by Stuart Burge, BBC, 22nd December 1984, [accessed 18th December 2019], 7:15-7:18.

[15] Much Ado About Nothing, p. 198.

[16] P.21 in the textbook, use that to find the reference.

[17] Much Ado About Nothing’, The BBC Television Shakespeare Project by Stuart Burge, BBC, 22nd December 1984, [accessed 18th December 2019], 6:42-7:14.

[18] Evidenced through lines such as that of Leonato - ‘Are these things spoken or do I but dream?’ p. 299., as well as Hero’s ‘O god, defend me, how am I best! (ibid).

[19] Gerber, Natalie, ‘Stevens' mixed-breed versifying and his adaptations of Blank-Verse practice’, Wallace Stevens Journal, 2011, Vol.35, pp 188-223.

[20] Much Ado About Nothing, p. 301.

[21] Shakespeare, W., Bate, J., and Eric Rasmussen, William Shakespeare Complete works (Macmillan, 2007), p.1957.

[22] Ibid, p.543.

[23] ‘Do not forget to specify, when time and place shall serve, that I am an ass’ - Much Ado About Nothing, p. 334.

[24] Paul, Innes, Shakespeare: The Barriers Removed (Studymates limited, 2005) p.12.