At the Folger, we’re busily preparing for Folger Theatre’s new production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. But across the country, it looks like we’re smack in the middle of the Summer of Much Ado About Nothing. The Arkansas Shakespeare Theatre, Chesapeake Shakespeare Company, Commonwealth Shakespeare Company, Illinois Shakespeare Festival, and San Francisco Shakespeare Festival have all staged productions of Much Ado this season. Maybe they all felt like San Francisco Shakes Artistic Director Rebecca J. Ennals, who remarked, “After the past 2 years, we were ready for a comedy.” Agreed!
If you’re seeing Much Ado About Nothing for the first time, or the hundredth time, what should you look for? What moments are key to understanding the play? What were the artists thinking about as they staged it? We asked five theater-makers who are working on Much Ado this summer what audience members should look and listen for. Here are their answers:
1. Echoes of comedies past
Chesapeake Shakespeare Company’s Much Ado About Nothing is onstage through July 24 at the PFI Historic Park in Ellicott City, Maryland. Director Séamus Miller suggests watching for the things that Shakespeare’s comedies have in common:
Shakespeare’s later comedies tend be excellent rewrites of his earlier work. Themes of separated twins (The Comedy Errors) and women disguised as men (The Two Gentlemen of Verona) show up again with more depth and complexity in plays like Twelfth Night and As You Like It. Similarly, a problematic early play, The Taming Of The Shrew, is reworked and reborn as a true masterpiece: Much Ado About Nothing. Here, the love story doesn’t require the man to emerge victorious over the woman—we get to watch both Benedick and Beatrice overcome their pride and fall in love with each other as equals (even if they’re both still “too wise to woo peaceably.”)
But the play is also about the entire community healing and moving forward in the wake of war, trauma, and separation. Our production is set during the liberation of Western Europe in late 1944, but with an awareness of our own circumstances: isolation during the pandemic, the tragic war in Ukraine, and the political divisions here at home.
2. Glimpses of comedies yet to come
The Arkansas Shakespeare Theatre’s production of Much Ado About Nothing wrapped up on July 2. Steven Marzolf, the theater’s artistic associate, reminds us that many of today’s romantic comedies are patterned after the play’s enemies-to-lovers plot:
Is there anything better than a really great rom-com? The banter, the “I love you, I hate you” of the main couple, the supportive friends who will do whatever they can to bring said couple together, and don’t forget the comedy/drama. Most of those who are fans of the genre can pull quotes from a myriad of shows or productions.
But many fans might not realize a play written in 1598/1599 is the original of all romantic comedies. That play is Much Ado About Nothing. It has spawned hundreds of copycats (from early to present Hollywood, where film after film follows the Bard’s structure). Shakespeare knew he was onto something good when Benedick and Beatrice graced the Elizabethan stages in the early 17th century. Their verbal sparring, quick wits, and big hearts make this a funny, memorable, and relatable play.
The irony is, the main couple of Much Ado (at least what Elizabethans would know as the main couple) are Claudio and Hero. They are young and fall in love instantly. They have very little to say to each other, and yet so much happens to them. Juxtapose that with Beatrice and Benedick, who are more mature, who have a sordid past and have everything to say about it. Two masterful gulling scenes (“gulling” means to trick) bring our dynamic duo on the brink of getting together. And although the play drastically shifts from comedy to near tragedy in Act 4, (as Claudio shames Hero at the altar due to false information about her faithfulness), as in all great romantic comedies, love does win out as the villains are exposed and the two main couples end up together. Finally, Benedick and Beatrice are able to “talk themselves mad” as they and Claudio and Hero unite in marriage at the end of the play.
3. Much ado about gender
This summer, theater artists from the Commonwealth Shakespeare Company, Illinois Shakespeare Festival, and San Francisco Shakespeare Festival are exploring gender and queering Shakespeare in their productions of the play.
Assistant Director Ludmilla de Brito reflects on love and community in the Commonwealth Shakespeare Company’s production (starting July 20 on Boson Common), which also features “original ’90s-inspired bops, . . . wild batons, and incredible dance moves, especially from our Friar Francis.”
Some of my favorite things about this iteration of Much Ado About Nothing is how fresh and relevant it feels. Not only is it a celebration of love but it is also a reminder of how society can affect our behavior. The right to love who we choose without having to hide it is highlighted in the casting of a same-sex Beatrice and Benedick and their hesitancy to assume their love until encouraged by their friends and family, which can be seen in their gulling scenes.
The role of Ursula has been merged with Antonio, and in this version, Antonio and Leonato are not brothers, but lovers! This switch creates a beautiful caring relationship between Hero and Antonio, which becomes extra special when they team up to bamboozle Beatrice into believing Benedick’s love depends on her reciprocation of it.
The dangers of toxic masculinity/machismo are evident when a young Claudio lets violence and senseless jealousy supersede his trust in Hero at their wedding.
Much Ado is a complex and delightful journey. These wonderful actors take our hearts on a rollercoaster of love, grief, joy, growth, and much confusion that all serves to remind us of the importance of good communication as well as the utter freedom that can come from a loving, supportive community.
When a theater employs cross-gendered casting, how does it change our reactions to the play? The Illinois Shakespeare Festival’s production is onstage through August 5, alongside King Lear. Artistic Director John Stark suggests keeping an eye on Act 4, scene 1, in which Claudio wrongly accuses Hero of infidelity at their wedding:
In our production, something that Shakespeare fans would want to note would be how the gender-reversed casting of Leonato (Leonata—Quetta Carpenter) and Antonio (Antonia— Kelsey Fisher-Waits) changes their interpretation of the scene where Hero is falsely accused by Claudio, Don John and Don Pedro. Does Shakespeare’s text play universally? Is changing pronouns all that is required to support casting these roles as women?
San Francisco Shakespeare Festival’s free Shakespeare in the Park production of Much Ado About Nothing begins July 23 in Cupertino. Director Shannon R. Davis encourages audiences to think about how the play’s characters embody ideas of masculinity and femininity:
Our production of Much Ado explores the dance we all do on the masculine and feminine spectrum. Each character has a chosen gender identity, which is separate to where they are on the masc/fem embodied spectrum at any given moment in the play. Beatrice sits in her masculine power for much of the play, and is likewise out of balance. It is when she achieves a more steady mix of both (letting go of these dominating, controlling tendencies) that her character can be more collaborative. On the same side of this spectrum, but far over on the embodied masculine side to the point of toxicity, Don John competes, schemes, and dominates the situation for his amusement. His utter lack of compassion and feeling (the embodied feminine) infects other characters (Claudio, Don Pedro, Borachio) and causes the balance of this spectrum in the play to tilt far into chaos. Our Antonia (a fusion of Ursula and Antonio) is so far on the feminine embodied spectrum that her co-dependency to her brother Leonato renders her almost ineffectual in defending her family and supporting her niece. Adding to this that our performers are from a diverse representation of gender identities, queerness, and embodied masculinity and femininity themselves, we explore a richness of complexity in this play about the divine feminine and sacred masculine balance.
4. Iconic lines
Much Ado About Nothing is full of memorable lines, like “I do love nothing in the world so well as you” (Benedick) and “O, that I had been writ down an ass” (Dogberry)! Ludmilla de Brito of the Commonwealth Shakespeare Company highlights a few of her favorites:
Some iconic lines to look for are “Let me be that I am and seek not to alter me” (Don John), “Meantime let wonder seem familiar” (Friar Francis), “Love on” and “The count is neither sad, nor sick, nor merry, nor well; but civil count, civil as an orange, and something of that jealous complexion” (both by Beatrice).
What’s your favorite part of Much Ado About Nothing? What’s something you always watch for in a new production? Whatever you’re looking for, we hope you make it to a theater this summer to catch Shakespeare’s beloved comedy.
Arkansas Shakespeare Theatre, Chesapeake Shakespeare Company, Commonwealth Shakespeare Company, Illinois Shakespeare Festival, and San Francisco Shakespeare Festival are members of the Folger’s Theater Partnership Program.
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Shakespeare & Co. In Lenix, MA, is also performing Much Ado this month. I can hardly wait: it was the first Shakespeare I ever performed onstage (Pomona College, 1960). I was Verges, played as a rheumy senile old man; I got welcome coaching in turning my 18-y-ear-old self into that character. Over 50 years later, as a member of the Shakespeare Club of Worcester, MA, I got a long-awaited chance to read Benedick. What a wonderful play it is!
Steven Ledbetter — July 8, 2022