It's remarkable to realize that Much Ado About Nothing was written four centuries ago in the England of Queen Elizabeth I. Across the Atlantic, the first English colony at Roanoke Island had disappeared several years earlier, and the first permanent English colony at Jamestown was still several years ahead. So, near the end of the fifteenth century, England itself was the English-speaking world. The language of the play is the Elizabethan English of its day. Shakespeare's frequent similes, metaphors, allusions, analogies, and other figures of speech are often based on ideas, events, and people familiar to most English playgoers of the time.
Shakespeare's gift for words and phrases and his skill at wordplay are extraordinary, one reason why he is still quoted more frequently than any other writer in the English language. Ironically, these qualities in a man of limited education have often given rise to the theories that Shakespeare did not write Shakespeare.
Elizabethan audiences were especially fond of certain kinds of humor, especially humor that played on words. In her 1993 book, The Friendly Shakespeare, Norrie Epstein identifies four types of Shakespearean humor:
Puns: The epitome of wordplay. A pun may be based on different meanings of the same word (as in "noting") or on different words pronounced the same ("whys" and "wise"; "Londonderry Air" and "London derriere"). An example from Act I, Scene 1:
Messenger: [speaking about Benedick to Beatrice] And a
good soldier too, lady.
Beatrice: And a good soldier to a lady, but what is he to a
Many puns must be seen in writing to get the joke.
Running gags: An amusing or derogatory jest that recurs many times, usually with variations. For example, a frequent running gag in Shakespeare is of a cuckold: a man whose wife is unfaithful. The word refers to a cuckoo, a bird that lays its eggs in other birds' nests. The cuckold was said to grow horns on his head, invisible to him, obvious to everyone else. Thus, words and symbols suggesting cuckolding include horns, rams, and bulls. In Much Ado, the preoccupation with cuckolding begins early in Act I, Scene 1:
Don Pedro: . . . I think this is your daughter?
Leonato: Her mother hath many times told me so.
Benedick: Were you in doubt, sir, that you asked her?
Leonato: Signor Benedick, no, for then you were a child.
This same scene includes three more indirect references by Benedick to cuckolding, suggesting that his attitude toward women and marriage is probably shaped by his preoccupation with being cuckolded.
Quibbles: Wordplays that squeeze as many meanings as possible out of one word or phrase. Pronunciation may be important, just as it is in puns. A conspicuous quibble in Much Ado is the banter between Don Pedro and Balthasar about notes and noting/nothing in Act II, Scene 3:
Don Pedro: . . . Do it in notes.
Balthasar: Note this before my notes;
There's not a note of mine that's worth the noting.
Don Pedro: Why, these are very crotchets that he speaks.
Note notes, forsooth, and nothing!
The use of "crotchets" here is another kind of wordplay within the larger quibble on notes and noting, since the word means quarter notes as well as whimsical ideas. Still another form of quibble is the exaggerated use of a metaphor. For example, when Beatrice learns that Benedick is the close companion to Claudio, she says:
Lord, he will hang upon him like a disease: he is sooner caught than the pestilence, and the taker runs presently mad. God help the noble Claudio, if he hath caught the Benedick. It will cost him a thousand pound ere a be cured.
Topical humor: This kind of humor is the most difficult to decipher without more information about typical knowledge and attitudes of the time. For example, in Act II, Scene 1, Benedick asks Don Pedro to find him a mission that will allow him to escape from Beatrice. In his suggestions he includes:
I will . . . bring you the length of Prester John's foot: fetch you a hair off the Great Cham's beard: do you embassage to the Pygmies.
We must rely on the editor's footnotes on Prester John, Great Cham, and the Pygmies to appreciate this humor fully. However, we understand the gist of it even without knowing what these refer to. On the other hand, some humor is easily missed without such historical information. For example, Beatrice's first line asks about "Signor Mountanto." Footnotes explain that "mountanto" is an upward thrust movement in fencing, which Elizabethan playgoers would understand as a kind of slang for either reaching upward socially beyond his level (social climbing) or sexually thrusting upward. Some actors today pronounce the word as "mount on to," making the sexual reference obvious to today's audiences.
It's not essential that today's playgoer understand the underlying references to every humorous remark because the actors can often make the humor clear from their manner of delivering the lines as well as from the context. The reader of the play, however, has the advantage of the footnotes for a richer understanding of Shakespeare's remarkable wordplay.
Structure and Repetition
Shakespeare also excels at other forms of wordplay. For example, Leonato comments on the good news of the messenger in Act I, Scene 1: "How much better is it to weep at joy, than to joy at weeping" — one of those quotable lines of Shakespearean philosophy. In Act II, Scene 3, Benedick has a marvelous monologue illustrating several structural variations of repeated words and phrases: his description of the change in Claudio around the repeated phrase "I have known when" and the symmetry of what he looks for in a woman: ". . . one woman is fair, yet I am well; another is wise, yet I am well; another virtuous, yet I am well" and "rich shall she be, that's certain: wise, or I'll none; virtuous, or I'll never cheapen her; fair, or I'll never look on her; mild, or come not near me; noble, or not I for an angel."
In Dogberry's outrage at being called "an ass" by Conrade, Dogberry has a monologue with wonderful repetitions. The sexton, who was recording the interrogation, has left, so Dogberry regrets, "Oh, that he were here to write me down an ass!" In the middle of his complaint, he raves, "remember that I am an ass, though it not be written down, yet forget not that I am an ass," and he ends with "oh that I had been writ down an ass!" And in his self-justification, he reminds everyone of his good qualities with simple symmetry and repetition of phrase:
I am a wise fellow, and which is more, an officer, and which is more, a householder, and which is more, as pretty a piece of flesh as any is in Messina, and one that knows the law, go to, and a rich fellow enough, go to, and a fellow
that hath had losses, and one that hath two gowns, and
everything handsome about him.
Verse and Prose
Many readers come to Shakespeare with the preconception that the plays are all written in verse, specifically in blank verse of iambic pentameter. In actuality, Shakespeare uses both prose and verse. Most of Much Ado is written in prose, and thus the segments in verse stand out on the printed page.
The first occurrence of verse is in the Act I, Scene 1, conversation between Claudio and Don Pedro, the first step of Claudio's wooing of Hero. The second use of verse is in Act II, Scene 1, when Claudio bemoans what he thinks is the loss of Hero to Don Pedro. Verse appears next in Act II, Scene 3, as Claudio, Don Pedro, and Balthasar prepare for the deception of Benedick, who is hiding in the arbor. Even in the denunciation scene at the church, Claudio is inclined to speak in verse, and the rest of the cast follows suit until Beatrice and Benedick are left alone. In all their exchanges, excepting the final one before they marry, Beatrice and Benedick speak in prose.
"Thee" and "You"
Another subtlety of Shakespeare's language is easily missed by today's listeners and readers. "You" is the polite form of the second person singular pronoun with strangers, for formal situations, and for general usage. "Thee" and its relatives ("thou," "thy," "thine") may be used between good friends or lovers, between a parent and child, and sometimes in a derogatory way.
In the play, the use of "thee" and "thou" comes more easily to the lips of some characters than to others. For example, in Act I, Scene 1, when Claudio and Benedick are alone together, Claudio readily slips into the familiar form, but Benedick does not. When Don Pedro joins them, he begins using the familiar form, but in speaking to Don Pedro, Claudio now uses the more formal "you" as a term of respect toward his superior officer. Benedick uses "you" for everyone. Only in his most loving words to Beatrice after the denunciation scene in the church and at the end of the play does Benedick slip into "thee" and "thine." Beatrice never succumbs to using the most personal form.
As expressed above, today's playgoer need not understand all the subtleties that characterize Shakespeare's rich language. The actors' performances should convey much of the intended meaning of a particular word or phrase. On the other hand, the reader who takes time to examine the explanatory notes and to reread lines will appreciate more the vitality of the characters and will experience more of the emotional impact of their words and actions in the play.