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The Power of Noting in Much Ado About Nothing

Shakespeare Gallery folio, "Much Ado About Nothing, Act IV, Scene I"; as engraved by Peter Simon, after the painting by W. Hamilton, 1790.

Commentators on Much Ado About Nothing usually point out that the words “nothing” and “noting” were pronounced alike in Shakespeare’s time, and that the title can refer to the great stir caused by faulty “noting.” Beatrice and Benedick distrust each other’s professions of love because words can mask or misrepresent all kinds of intentions. Thus when Don Pedro and Hero execute for their own amusement their scheme to have Benedick and Beatrice overhear how much each is secretly loved by the other, they succeed because their words, which were never spoken, seem so plausible.

Compensating for and overcoming this epistemological instability between “noting” and “nothing” poses the greatest challenge to the realization of Benedick and Beatrice’s and Claudio and Hero’s marriages. These marriages eventually occur for two reasons. The first involves Dogberry and his watch providentially overhearing Borachio tells Conrade the truth. “Providentially” is the right word here. Dogberry and the watch sit upon “the church bench,” a hallowed place from which they note Borachio’s treachery. Dogberry, while punchy in his malapropisms, is the play’s most pious character, mentioning “God” no fewer than 13 times. But the admittedly vague suggestion of a providence operating in Messina also depends upon a human capacity, the ability to freeze the unstable spoken word, here and then gone, into writing. The recorded word makes Don John’s guilt incontestable.

The second reason the marriages occur involves the power of the written word over that of the spoken word. Leonato tells Claudio to write and hang an epitaph upon Hero’s supposed tomb. Read at her tomb, the epitaph’s verse expresses the truth that she was wronged by slanderous tongues. The epitaph thus becomes part of Claudio’s imaginative reconstruction of Hero, which Friar Francis has engineered, such that he is better disposed to love Hero when he learns that she is not dead but alive.

Having learned that their commitment to love each other was a result of Don Pedro’s stratagem, Beatrice and Benedick threaten to revert to their old skepticism about affection. But the discovery of their sonnets, which reveal their honest love for the other, cannot be denied. Much ado can be legitimately made of this kind of noting.

Maurice Hunt is a Research Professor of English at Baylor University where he teaches undergraduate and graduate courses in Shakespeare. His latest books are Shakespeare’s As You Like It: Late Elizabethan Culture and Literary Representation and Shakespeare’s Speculative Art.

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