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About this book

This Handbook provides an introductory guide to Much Ado About Nothing offering a scene-by-scene theatrically aware commentary, contextual documents, a brief history of the text and first performances, case studies of key productions, a survey of film and TV adaptation, a wide sampling of critical opinion and further reading.

Table of Contents

1. The Text and Early Performances

Abstract
The first mention of ‘The comedie of much A dooe about nothinge’ as ‘A booh’, was in a note, dated 4 August 1600, on the fly-leaf of a volume of the Stationer’s Register, where it was formally entered on 23 August, and then appeared later that year in a quarto text (a book made up of sheets of paper folded twice to provide 4 leaves or 8 pages). The title page announced it as:
Much adoe about Nothing As it hath been sundrie times publikely acted by the right honourable, the Lord Chamberlaine his servants. Written by William Shakespeare.
Further details on the title page informed the first readers that the play was printed in 1600 by Valentine Simmes for Andrew Wise (who also published quartos of Richard III) and William Aspley, who was later involved, though not as a very active partner, in the publishing of the First Folio of Shakespeare’s plays, due to his ownership of the rights in Much Ado and Henry IV Part 2 (2 HIV) (also printed by Simmes). The published quarto would have cost about 6d (Murphy, 2003, 30), the equivalent of an expensive seat at the Curtain, which was probably the first theatre in which Much Ado had ‘been sundrie times publikely acted’, as the title page advertises.
Alison Findlay

2. Commentary

Abstract
The play opens on a threshold, spatially and metaphorically, as Leonato interrogates the messenger, with the women of his family attending. This is also a temporal threshold: the transition between war and peacetime, violence and love. The messenger’s news is materialised onstage by the letter that Leonato carries and refers to; as a physical object that epitomises meaning in transit, it effectively heralds the anticipation of imminent movement and change that characterises the atmosphere of these opening lines. The early texts do not specify where this scene takes place but it must be somewhere near the entrance to Leonato’s house since Don Pedro says to him ‘are you come to meet your trouble’ (I.i.91–92) and Antonio later claims that Don Pedro and Claudio’s conversation which ends the scene takes place in Leonato’s orchard. Borachio claims he has overheard them while he was airing a musty room. In an Elizabethan staging he could have literally overheard by entering at the gallery above the stage. A large entrance which can be left open is required so that characters can begin the process of ‘noting’ or overhearing. A physical setting near the threshold of Leonato’s house would reinforce the sense of liminality a time and place of transition.
Alison Findlay

3. Intellectual and Cultural Contexts

Abstract
The setting and the character names of Much Ado are derived from one of Matteo Bandello’s stories in La Pnma Parte de le Novelle, published in Italian in 1554 and translated into French by Belleforrest in Histoire Tragiques (1569). Many of the plot details in Bandello parallel those in Much Ado, while the divergences suggest a desire for different dramatic effects.
Alison Findlay

4. Key Productions

Abstract
Theatrical interpretations of Much Ado About Nothing have ranged from minimalist stagings like Edward Gordon Craig’s 1903 touring production through to the extravagant, pictorial grandeur of Henry Irving’s in 1882 which also toured in Britain and America, running for a record 212 consecutive performances. Irving employed over 600 people for his production and, in line with Victorian theatrical traditions, placed heavy emphasis on spectacle. The church scene was the crowning glory of the production. Percy Fitzgerald noted ‘the art displayed here, the combination of “built up” scenery with “cloths”, the rich harmonious tintings, the ecclesiastical details, the metal-work, altars, etc. made an exquisite picture’. The stage picture was itself the subject of a picture, and later an engraving of the scene by Forbes-Robertson who played Claudio. Actors entered to the resonant tones of the organ and represented a large group of clerics carrying censers and candles and wedding guests in addition to the protagonists. Fitzgerald argued that the state and publicity of the scene, the crowds and rich dresses and ecclesiastical robes, brought out ‘the “distressful” character of such a trial for a young bride’ (Fitzgerald, 1893, 193). Some critics were less complimentary, arguing that only the excellent acting of the principals and the ensemble managed to rescue the show from being ‘over-weighted with upholstery and wardrobe’ (Sunday Times, 15 October 1882).
Alison Findlay

5. The Play on Screen

Abstract
In film or television, the audience is not a living community of spectators who are implicated in the play’s processes of noting, overhearing and watching. Nevertheless, screen versions direct the gaze of viewers at scenes which are often not realisable on stage. To explore some effects of screen adaptation in Much Ado, this chapter will analyse two television productions adapted from the stage, alongside the BBC TV production directed by Stuart Burge and the Renaissance Theatre Company’s 1993 film, directed by Kenneth Branagh.
Alison Findlay

6. Critical Assessment

Abstract
Much Ado’s early editorial and performance history laid the foundations of a critical tradition that prioritised the Beatrice-Benedick plot. Charles Gildon, writing a commentary to Rowe’s edition of 1709, disliked the generic instability of the play, arguing that although it must be called a comedy it contained improbable “incidents” of ‘a tragic strain’ that would never ‘have come off in nature’ without a full tragic conclusion. The gulling of Don Pedro and Claudio was ‘lame’ and the plot was only effective because ‘the character of Don John the Bastard is admirably distinguished’, meaning consistently defined in terms of ‘a sour, melancholy, saturnine, envious, selfish, malicious temper-manners necessary to produce these villainous events’ (quoted in Bloom and Cornelius, 2010, 52). Claudio’s accusation of Hero on such ‘weak grounds without farther examination’ made it ‘highly contrary to the very nature of love’ and so unconvincing as well as being unnatural in its effect: ‘too shocking for either Tragedy or Comedy’. The tragic strain was only redeemed, in Gildon’s view, by Leonato’s passion. The play’s tragicomic cocktail of effects did not attract critical appreciation until the 20th century. To sensibilities at the dawn of the enlightenment, it was the integrity and distinction of characters ‘perfectly maintain’d’ which allowed readers and audiences to ‘lose the absurdities of conduct in the excellence of the manners, sentiments, diction’.
Alison Findlay
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