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Much Ado About Nothing /

Reading Shakespeare’s Language: Much Ado About Nothing

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

For many people today, reading Shakespeare’s language can be a problem—but it is a problem that can be solved. Those who have studied Latin (or even French or German or Spanish) and those who are used to reading poetry will have little difficulty understanding the language of poetic drama. Others, however, need to develop the skills of untangling unusual sentence structures and of recognizing and understanding poetic compressions, omissions, and wordplay. And even those skilled in reading unusual sentence structures may have occasional trouble with Shakespeare’s words. More than four hundred years of “static”—caused by changes in language and in life—intervene between his speaking and our hearing. Most of his vocabulary is still in use, but a few of his words are no longer used, and many of his words now have meanings quite different from those they had in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. In the theater, most of these difficulties are solved for us by actors who study the language and articulate it for us so that the essential meaning is heard—or, when combined with stage action, is at least felt. When we are reading on our own, we must do what each actor does: go over the lines (often with a dictionary close at hand) until the puzzles are solved and the lines yield up their poetry and the characters speak in words and phrases that are, suddenly, rewarding and wonderfully memorable.

Shakespeare’s Words

As you begin to read the opening scenes of a play by Shakespeare, you may notice occasional unfamiliar words. Some are unfamiliar simply because we no longer use them. In the opening scenes of Much Ado About Nothing, for example, you will find the words squarer (i.e., fighter, quarreler), methinks (it seems to me), recheat (the notes of a hunting horn), baldrick (a belt for holding bugles, swords, etc.), and arras (a hanging screen of rich tapestry fabric). Words of this kind will become familiar the more of Shakespeare’s plays you read.


In Much Ado About Nothing, as in all of Shakespeare’s writing, more problematic are the words that we still use but that we use with a different meaning. In the opening scenes of Much Ado, for example, the word tax has the meaning of “take to task, criticize,” stomach is used where we would say “appetite,” halting where we would say “limping,” sad where we would say “serious,” and winded where we would say “sounded, blown.” Such words, too, will become familiar as you continue to read Shakespeare’s language.

Some words are strange not because of the “static” introduced by changes in language over the past centuries but because these are words that Shakespeare is using to build a dramatic world that has its own geography and history and background mythology. Much Ado About Nothing, for example, through references to Messina, Venice, and Padua, to “thick-pleached alleys” and “orchards,” creates a location on a wealthy estate in Italy. Through military language—action (i.e., military engagement), sort (i.e., rank), and sworn brother (i.e., brother-in-arms)—it places itself in time, just at the end of a war. Through complicated references to Cupid and his arrows and to Hercules (a mythological figure prominent both for his massive strength and for his helplessness when trapped by love), it also builds a world in which warfare and romantic love are intricately intertwined. These “local” words and references help to build the world that Beatrice, Benedick, Hero, and Claudio inhabit, and will become increasingly familiar to you as you read further into the play.

Shakespearean Wordplay

In Much Ado About Nothing, Shakespeare plays with language so often and so variously that the entire play can be read and heard as brilliant repartee: witty punning, elaboration of commonplaces, highly figured verbal structures. In the play’s opening scene, the Messenger delivers his report of the just-ended war in elaborate verbal figures. He reports that Claudio “hath borne himself beyond the promise of his age, doing in the figure of a lamb the feats of a lion,” thus contrasting Claudio’s lamblike youth and apparent helplessness with his lionlike ferocity in battle. He then uses figured language to report Claudio’s uncle’s reception of the news of Claudio’s valor: “there appears much joy in him, even so much that joy could not show itself modest enough without a badge of bitterness.” (Badge here means “sign” and bitterness means “anguish of heart, suffering.”) These words are such a complicated way of saying “He was so happy he wept” that Leonato is forced to ask for clarification: “Did he break out into tears?” The Messenger’s response, “In great measure,” leads in turn to Leonato’s punning response: “A kind overflow of kindness,” where kind means both “natural” and “warmhearted” and kindness means both “kinship” and “affection.”

Every major character in Much Ado About Nothing has his or her own way of playing with, elaborating, or misusing language. Two of the more intriguing are Beatrice and Benedick, whose linguistic tendencies define them for the other characters. Beatrice, in the prejudice of the time, is seen as “shrewish” or “curst” because of her “sharp tongue.” Her first line in the play is to ask whether “Signior Mountanto” (i.e., Benedick) has returned from the war, jabbing at Benedick by naming him with the fencing term montant (an upward blow or thrust). More typical of her wordplay is her response to the Messenger’s “I see, lady, the gentleman is not in your books.” The Messenger is, of course, using the phrase “in your books” figuratively, to mean “in your favor”; she takes the phrase literally and replies “No. An [i.e., if] he were, I would burn my study [i.e., library].” A few lines earlier we find her again taking a figurative phrase and interpreting it literally: when the Messenger describes Benedick as a man “stuffed with all honorable virtues,” she responds “It is so indeed. He is no less than a stuffed man, but for the stuffing—well, we are all mortal.” In the fourth scene of the play, when her uncle says to her “Well, niece, I hope to see you one day fitted with a husband,” she builds an elaborate response by taking literally the more-or-less figurative biblical passage which reads that “the Lord God formed man of the dust of the ground” (Genesis 2:7). Combining a literal reading of this verse with the line in the marriage liturgy in which the woman promises to “obey” and “serve” the man she marries, Beatrice responds as follows to Leonato’s wish that she find a husband: “Not till God make men of some other metal than earth. Would it not grieve a woman to be overmastered with a piece of valiant dust? To make an account of her life to a clod of wayward marl?” It is to such language that the male characters in the play respond: “By my troth . . ., thou wilt never get thee a husband if thou be so shrewd of thy tongue.”

Benedick, too, uses wordplay centered in the double meanings of words (saying, for example, that Hero is “too low for a high praise, too brown for a fair praise, and too little for a great praise”). But his more characteristic wordplay is with metaphor—or, rather, with metaphoric figures. A true metaphor is a play on words in which one object or idea is expressed as if it were something else, something with which it shares common features. (Don John uses metaphor when he says “I have decreed not to sing in my cage,” picturing his unfree state as that of a caged songbird.) Benedick’s metaphoric figures begin as metaphors or similes but spin out into linguistic cartoons: “Prove that ever I lose more blood with love than I will get again with drinking,” he boasts, “pick out mine eyes with a ballad-maker’s pen and hang me up at the door of a brothel house for the sign of blind Cupid.” With a few phrases, he sketches himself as first blinded, then turned into a signboard, and then hung outside a brothel. “If I [fall in love],” he again boasts, “hang me in a bottle like a cat and shoot at me, and he that hits me, let him be clapped on the shoulder and called Adam.” Here the wordplay is built on a simile (i.e., he is to be like a cat in a bottle), but again the comparison image expands into an entire scenario in which Benedick is to be hung in a bottle, used for archery practice, hit by an arrow, and the winner congratulated. One of his metaphoric overstatements comes back to haunt him. Answering Don Pedro’s quoting of the proverb “In time the savage bull doth bear the yoke,” Benedick comically dooms himself by saying “The savage bull may, but if ever the sensible Benedick bear it, pluck off the bull’s horns and set them in my forehead, and let me be vilely painted, and in such great letters as they write ‘Here is good horse to hire’ let them signify under my sign ‘Here you may see Benedick the married man.’ ” The image produced here—the sensible Benedick wearing the bull’s horns and advertising his married state—seems to be a challenge to Don Pedro that is later picked up in his tricking of Benedick and that is alluded to twice toward the end of the play. One of the play’s high comic moments rests on Benedick’s turning Claudio’s taunts about the savage bull back on Claudio, using metaphoric language to shape a truly elegant riposte:


Good morrow, Benedick. Why, what’s the matter

That you have such a February face,

So full of frost, of storm, and cloudiness?


I think he thinks upon the savage bull.

Tush, fear not, man. We’ll tip thy horns with gold,

And all Europa shall rejoice at thee,

As once Europa did at lusty Jove

When he would play the noble beast in love.


Bull Jove, sir, had an amiable low,

And some such strange bull leapt your father’s cow

And got a calf in that same noble feat

Much like to you, for you have just his bleat.


Benedick’s metaphoric conversational style is what leads Don Pedro to characterize Benedick as being “from the crown of his head to the sole of his foot . . . all mirth” (3.2.8–9). This style is also, no doubt, what lies behind Beatrice’s taunting characterization of him as “the Prince’s jester” (2.1.135).

Because intricate wordplay—whether the intentional elaborations of Benedick and Beatrice or the unintentional confusions of Dogberry—is so central to the language structure of Much Ado About Nothing, one must read the dialogue with special attention to double meanings, elaborated metaphors, verbal confusions, and other forms of linguistic playfulness.

Implied Stage Action

In reading Shakespeare’s plays we must always remember that what we are reading is a performance script. The dialogue is written to be spoken by actors who, at the same time, are moving, gesturing, picking up objects, weeping, shaking their fists. Some stage action is described in what are called “stage directions”; some is suggested within the dialogue itself. We must learn to be alert to such signals as we stage the play in our imaginations. When, in Much Ado About Nothing 2.3, Benedick says “I will hide me in the arbor,” and a few lines later Don Pedro says “See you where Benedick hath hid himself?” it is clear that the stage action involves Benedick’s hiding behind a stage tree (or some structure onstage that represents part of an “arbor”). Again, in 3.1, the stage action is mapped out rather precisely in Hero’s line “For look where Beatrice like a lapwing runs / Close by the ground,” followed by Ursula’s “Beatrice . . . even now / Is couchèd in the woodbine coverture,” and Hero’s “Then go we near her, that her ear lose nothing / Of the false sweet bait that we lay for it.”

At several places in Much Ado About Nothing, signals to the reader are not quite so clear. Early in the first wedding scene, Claudio, having been “given” Hero, gives her back again to her father with the lines “There, Leonato, take her back again. / Give not this rotten orange to your friend.” It is unclear just what Claudio’s actions are as he delivers those lines. In many productions, he throws her toward Leonato, sometimes with such violence that she hits the stage in a bruised heap. One could argue that, since this is early in the scene’s action, before Claudio’s rage truly builds, a less violent gesture is more appropriate, but a range of stage actions offers itself. Again, later in the same scene, Beatrice’s question “Why, how now, cousin, wherefore sink you down?” makes it clear that Hero falls to the stage. When she should get back up, however, is left to the imagination of the director, the actress, or us as readers to determine. Learning to read the language of stage action repays one many times over when one reads the play’s final scene, with its entrance of masked ladies, its powerful unmasking of the “Hero that is dead,” its discovery of the love letters that demonstrate that Beatrice and Benedick do, in fact, love each other, and its final dance. Here, as in so much of Much Ado About Nothing, implied stage action vitally affects our response to the play.

It is immensely rewarding to work carefully with Shakespeare’s language so that the words, the sentences, the wordplay, and the implied stage action all become clear—as readers for the past four centuries have discovered. It may be more pleasurable to attend a good performance of a play—though not everyone has thought so. But the joy of being able to stage one of Shakespeare’s plays in one’s imagination, to return to passages that continue to yield further meanings (or further questions) the more one reads them—these are pleasures that, for many, rival (or at least augment) those of the performed text, and certainly make it worth considerable effort to “break the code” of Elizabethan poetic drama and let free the remarkable language that makes up a Shakespeare text.