Much Ado’s comedy is a mixture of slapstick, romantic farce and cynical one-liners; alongside this humour the central plot of the play has very dark moments and verges on the tragic. For these reasons, Much Ado is a notoriously tricky comedy to direct and perform. But the students at my school in Form Six, who were studying the play for their A-Levels, were desperate to get to the heart of the play by not just reading it but also bringing it to life on the stage. Some of these students had been working their way up the ranks in drama since way back when they were in F. 1 and F. 2. They had played non-speaking parts, helped to make props and paint sets, handed out programmes and done a host of other chores for the drama team. And they reminded me that F. 6 would probably be their last chance to appear in a school production. How could I say no?
Yet for students who were previously used to the light-hearted, festive mischief and mayhem of A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Twelfth Night, getting to grips with Much Ado was going to involve a rethink of their expectations of comedy. This play has more worldly wise – or even worldly weary – characters than most of Shakespeare’s other romantic comedies. Rather than longing for romance, many characters seem convinced that the opposite sex cannot be trusted and that relationships are all too likely to fall prey to infidelities. Those characters who do fall in love in a straightforward way such as Hero and Claudio are presented as absurdly naïve and easily duped. And there are no characters in the other comedies that are quite so utterly vicious and malevolent as Much Ado’s Don John. The play ends with the joy of a double marriage, but it seems as if this ending has depended upon miraculous good fortune and remarkable, undeserved forgiveness rather than being an outcome that the characters have earned. The play has plenty to make audiences laugh, but there are also moments when the audience will feel uncomfortable and will be challenged to reflect on their attitudes towards relationships. It is certainly not a play which invites us to take love for granted.
However, it is perhaps these very difficulties which make the play so appealing to a sophisticated modern audience. Much Ado About Nothing may frustrate you if you are hoping for fairy-tale romance. But I hope that you will instead find something far richer and more rewarding in the play. Despite – or perhaps because of – their flaws and foibles, the people in this play are among the most fully human, believable characters that Shakespeare ever created. The play presents characters who have been jaded by their experiences in love – but who learn to love again and, having been out of love for a time, to appreciate all the more deeply what they very nearly lost.
Summary of the Plot
The war is finally over and a party atmosphere has overtaken the sleepy town of Messina. As the play begins, preparations are underway for the arrival of General Don Pedro and his handsome young lieutenants Claudio and Benedick at the villa of the town’s governor, Leonato.
Once the fighting is over, the people of Messina and their visitors can turn their thoughts to love. Claudio is smitten with Hero, the governor’s daughter but is too nervous to propose and so asks Don Pedro to do so for him. Benedick, however, is less fortunate. On a previous visit to Messina he broke the heart of Leonato’s niece Beatrice. As soon as they meet it is clear that she hasn’t forgiven him and they are soon embroiled in an intense ‘war of wit’. Their arguing is a great source of amusement for everyone around them, and it isn’t long before Don Pedro has persuaded everyone that it would be hilarious to play a trick on them in order to make them fall in love.
Meanwhile, Don Pedro’s illegitimate brother Don John hears that Claudio plans to woo Hero. Don John resents Claudio’s success and is angry at having been cast aside by Don Pedro, so he plots to prevent Claudio from marrying Hero. First he tries to persuade Claudio that Don Pedro wants Hero for himself. Then, when this fails, he devises a plot to convince Claudio and Don Pedro that Hero has been unfaithful.
Don John’s plot works and Claudio horrifies Hero and her family by announcing on their wedding day that she is an ‘approved wanton’. As Claudio storms off, Hero is so shocked that she collapses. Beatrice urges Benedick to challenge Claudio to a duel, warning that she cannot love him unless he is prepared to defend her cousin’s honour. Leonato is overwhelmed with grief and shame, but the Priest persuades him that his daughter is innocent and that he should pretend that she is dead in order to make Claudio feel remorseful.
Fortunately, the local constabulary stumbles across Don John’s drunken assistant Borachio boasting about how he carried out the plot against Hero for his master. Borachio is arrested and forced to confess to Leonato and Claudio. Once the truth is revealed, Claudio vows to Leonato that he will do whatever he is asked as penance for having caused the death of Hero. Leonato orders him to marry Hero’s cousin, who is presented to him beneath a veil. It is only once he agrees to do so that the ‘cousin’ can remove her veil and reveal to Claudio that she is in fact Hero, and still very much alive. Hero and Claudio are married, Beatrice and Benedick are united – although still mocking one another – and Benedick is greatly relieved that since Claudio is now his kinsman, he will no longer have to fight with him.
More details about our school's production can be found at englishplace.wetpaint.com