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Much Ado About Nothing /

An Introduction to This Text: Much Ado About Nothing

By Barbara Mowat and Paul Werstine
Editors of the Folger Shakespeare Library Editions

Much Ado About Nothing was first printed in 1600 as a quarto. This quarto is remarkable among early printed texts of Shakespeare’s plays for the contrast it presents between the superb correctness of its dialogue and the many obvious errors and ambiguities in its stage directions and speech prefixes. Editors have found very little to require correction in the dialogue but are hard pressed to impose order on the stage directions and speech prefixes.

In 1623 the play was printed again, this time as part of the collection of Shakespeare’s plays now known as the First Folio. The First Folio text is generally thought to be based on a lightly annotated copy of the First Quarto of 1600. Scholars used to believe that this very copy of the quarto was employed by Shakespeare’s company in their theaters to regulate performance of the play. Even today, some scholars argue that whoever annotated the copy of the 1600 quarto used by the printers of the First Folio Ado must have referred to a manuscript of the play that had been used in the theater. To support this opinion, these scholars point to the substitution of what may be an actor’s name (“Iacke Wilson”) for the name of the character Balthasar in one Folio stage direction, as well as to the Folio correction of one of the several errors in the quarto’s stage directions and the addition of some stage directions for music. (It should be noted that the Folio also adds to the errors in the quarto’s stage directions.) On the basis of this evidence, these scholars assert that the Folio Ado thus must be (indirectly) based on the manuscript that was used in the theater, and that the quarto must have been printed from Shakespeare’s own manuscript—his so-called “foul papers.” There is no reason, however, to believe that there existed only these two play manuscripts, since many different kinds of manuscripts of (non-Shakespearean) plays are still extant from the period. And there are just as good grounds for asserting that the quarto (rather than, or as well as, the Folio) may be based on a theatrical manuscript; the quarto speech prefixes, after all, contain the names of two quite well-known actors from Shakespeare’s company—the clowns Will Kemp and Richard Cowley (see the Textual Notes to 4.2). To sum up: as today’s scholars reexamine earlier accounts of the origins of the printed texts, we discover that these narratives are based on questionable evidence, and we become skeptical about ever identifying how the play assumed the forms in which it came to be printed.

The present edition is based directly on the earliest quarto of 1600.1 (In view of the uncertainty surrounding the origin of alterations made to the quarto text in the Folio, after surveying the Folio changes, we have chosen largely to ignore them in preparing this edition.) For the convenience of the reader, we have generally modernized the punctuation and the spelling of the quarto. Sometimes we go so far as to modernize certain old forms of words; for example, when a means “he,” we change it to he; we change mo to more, and ye to you. But it is not our practice in editing any of the plays to modernize words that sound distinctly different from modern forms. For example, when the early printed texts read sith or apricocks or porpentine, we have not modernized to since, apricots, porcupine. When the forms an, and, or and if appear instead of the modern form if, we have reduced and to an but have not changed any of these forms to their modern equivalent, if.

Although in general we have reduced the punctuation of the First Quarto to modern standards, we have left untouched in many cases one feature of its punctuation that arises from its use of the comma for many of the purposes nowadays filled by the semicolon, colon, and period. Take, for example, the First Quarto’s punctuation of these words of the Friar in the play’s last scene:

     All this amazement can I qualify,

     When after that the holy rites are ended,

     I’ll tell you largely of fair Hero’s death.

As punctuated, the speech may be read in two ways because the “when” clause in the second line may be attached either to the first line or to the third. Depending on the attachment the reader makes, the speech may say either “after the rites I can mitigate all this amazement” or “after the rites I’ll tell you all about Hero’s death.” There are no grounds for preferring one of these meanings to the other, and so, in such cases, we have not altered the First Quarto’s punctuation, but instead we have presented the reader with the First Quarto’s ambiguity.

Whenever we change the wording of the First Quarto or add anything to its stage directions, we mark the change by enclosing it in superior half-brackets ( ). We want our readers to be immediately aware when we have intervened. (Only when we correct an obvious typographical error in the First Quarto does the change not get marked.) Whenever we change either the First Quarto’s wording or its punctuation so that meaning changes, we list the change in the textual notes, even if all we have done is fix an obvious error.

We correct or regularize a number of the proper names. For example, when the Prince, usually called “Don Pedro,” is twice referred to as “Peter,” we change “Peter” to “Pedro.” Or when Hero’s waiting gentlewoman Ursula appears twice as “Ursley” in the First Quarto, we substitute “Ursula” on these occasions.

This edition differs from many earlier ones in its efforts to aid the reader in imagining the play as a performance rather than as a series of fictional events. Thus stage directions are written with reference to the stage. For example, in 4.1, after the character Hero has been accused of gross immorality, in the fiction of the play she faints (line 114). Thus traditional editions read “Hero swoons.” But in performance the actor playing Hero does not, of course, swoon; she merely slips down onto the stage. Since the stage directions in this edition are written with a view to performance, here our edition reads “Hero falls.” Whenever it is reasonably certain, in our view, that a speech is accompanied by a particular action, we provide a stage direction describing the action. (Occasional exceptions to this rule occur when the action is so obvious that to add a stage direction would insult the reader.) Stage directions for the entrance of characters in mid-scene are placed so that the directions immediately precede the characters’ participation in the scene, even though these entrances may appear somewhat earlier in the early printed texts. Whenever we move a stage direction, we record this change in the textual notes. Latin stage directions (e.g., Exeunt) are translated into English (e.g., They exit).

We expand the often severely abbreviated forms of names used as speech prefixes in early printed texts into the full names of the characters. We also regularize the speakers’ names in speech prefixes, using only a single designation for each character, even though the early printed texts sometimes use a variety of designations. This task is a particularly challenging one for Much Ado because of the high incidence of inconsistency in the use of speech prefixes. The problem is particularly vexing, for example, in 3.3, where the Watchmen first appear. The quarto sometimes makes distinctions among these figures, using the speech prefixes “Watch 1” and “Watch 2”; but often it employs the thoroughly ambiguous speech prefix “Watch.” Some recent editors have despaired of reducing these speech prefixes to any order and have simply used “A WATCHMAN” as the speech prefix throughout. While we sympathize with this practice, we have tried to help the reader by searching out patterns in the speeches that might be used to distinguish among the different Watchmen. We distinguish among three Watchmen. For one we use as his speech prefix the proper name given him in dialogue—Seacoal. He is chosen leader of the Watch, and we assign him speeches appropriate to a leader, mainly orders. To a second, whom we identify as “FIRST WATCHMAN” in speech prefixes, we give the speeches in which the word “deformed” is mistaken for the name of a criminal. The third we call “SECOND WATCHMAN.” While the distinctions we observe among these three characters are not entirely consistent, we hope the attempt to sort out the quarto’s ambiguity may be of some use to readers. Variations in the speech prefixes of the early printed text are recorded in the textual notes.

In the present edition, as well, we mark with a dash any change of address within a speech, unless a stage direction intervenes. When the -ed ending of a word is to be pronounced, we mark it with an accent. Like editors for the last two centuries, we display metrically linked lines in the following way:

 Do not you love me?
BEATRICE  Why no, no more than reason.

However, when there are a number of short verse lines that can be linked in more than one way, we do not, with rare exceptions, indent any of them.

  1. We have also consulted the computerized text of the First Quarto provided by the Text Archive of the Oxford University Computing Centre, to which we are grateful.