Engraving of the epitaph scene in Much Ado About Nothing in the 1740 edition of Shakespeare


This intriguing engraving designed by Hubert Gravelot depicts the epitaph scene in Act 5, Scene 3 of Much Ado About Nothing, when Claudio reads a poem affixed to Hero’s tomb. It is the only image used to illustrate that play in Lewis Theobald’s eight-volume Works of Shakespeare (1740). As such it offers a surprising perspective on a play so often depicted as a light-hearted ‘skirmish of wit’ between Beatrice and Benedick (1.1.63). Instead Gravelot’s image highlights the potential tragedy, with no hint of its comic resolution.

Much Ado About Nothing – from tragedy to comedy

This scene has been stage-managed by the Friar and Leonato to maintain the pretence that Hero has died in shock when denounced as a whore at her own wedding. By confronting Claudio with the seemingly dead Hero, the men hope to move him from ‘slander to remorse’ (4.1.211). They ultimately intend to reveal that she is alive, giving the couple a second chance at marriage. Yet none of this move from dark to light is betrayed in Gravelot’s image.

Appearing alongside the title page showing the play’s ambiguous name, it suggests that death could be the ‘Nothing’ which creates ‘Much Ado’ in this story. Alternatively, it could imply that the ritual of mourning Hero’s death – like so many other scenes – is in fact no more than a pretence ironically founded on nothing.

Lewis Theobald’s Works of Shakespeare (1740) illustrated by Gravelot

This edition was produced by the satirical author and highly-regarded editor, Lewis Theobald (1688–1744). In 1733, Theobald had edited a version of Shakespeare’s plays, correcting the errors and changes that he found in earlier 18th-century versions. This second edition of 1740, which introduced illustrations, was intended for a less wealthy, more middle-class audience.

The French illustrator and designer Hubert-François Bourguignon became known as Gravelot (1699–1773). He sealed his reputation when he came to London in 1732, promoting the elegant and decorative Rococo style that became so popular in the early 18th century. His 35 frontispieces for this book depict the characters in contemporary Georgian costume with stylised gestures and restrained emotions. The images often focus on episodes that had not been seen in earlier illustrated editions of Shakespeare, such as those by Nicholas Rowe (printed in 1709 and 1714).

Full title:
The Works of Shakespeare: in eight volumes ... With notes, explanatory, and critical: by Mr. Theobald. The second edition.
1740, London
Book / Duodecimo / Engraving / Illustration / Image
William Shakespeare, Lewis Theobald [editor], Hubert Gravelot [pseudonym for the illustrator]
Usage terms
Public Domain
Held by
British Library

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