Much Ado About Nothing, probably composed in 1598-9 and first appearing in quarto in 1600, is a play of two pairs of lovers: the meek Hero and the impressionable Claudio, and the acerbic Beatrice and chauvinistic Benedick.
After Claudio is told by the troublesome Don John that Hero is unfaithful, he humiliates her on her wedding day. Hero faints and is presumed dead. The repentant Claudio agrees to marry whoever Hero’s father chooses for him: he prepares to marry a veiled bride, who, at the last minute, is revealed to be the still-living Hero. Meanwhile, friends trick old sparring partners Beatrice and Benedick into admitting their love for one another, by means of forged letters and overheard conversations.
Much Ado is one of Shakespeare’s best-loved and most frequently performed comedies. Having its sources in Italianate literature of the preceding centuries, scholars have argued that Shakespeare’s play takes on an expanded psychological scope from the usual tales of mistaken cuckoldry and bawdy flirtation. While earlier writing on the play was exuberant in its delight in Beatrice and Benedick’s ‘merry war’, recent criticism has concentrated just as much on the Hero and Claudio plot, and in particular on the gender conventions that the play propagates. Hero becomes the silent woman, veiled and playing dead, whose worth is lost along with the notion of her chastity to the patriarchal world the play inhabits. Beatrice, on the other hand, becomes the embodiment of the period’s stereotype of the shrew, the overly talkative woman, who must be dealt with by the clichéd banter of the misogynistic Benedick.The play’s performance history has thus been of note more for its portrayals of Beatrice and Benedick than those of Hero and Claudio. A nineteenth-century trend to sentimentalize Beatrice as one who is struck by her own sudden longing gave way, in the twentieth century, to spunkier Beatrices unashamed of their wilful tongues.