British Library Treasures in full: Shakespeare in quarto
Main The Basics Background The Afterlife The Texts Expert views References Links Glossary Partners
Print Shakespeare quartos

Much Ado About Nothing

Creation of the play

Much Ado About Nothing was probably created in 1598-1599. The play is not mentioned by Francis Meres in Palladis Tamia, published in 1598. The quarto edition of 1600 names the comic actor William Kemp in some of the speech headings intended for the character Dogberry. Shakespeare must have been writing the play before Kemp left the Lord Chamberlain’s Men early in 1599.

Early performances

The title-page of the quarto states that Much Ado About Nothing ‘hath beene sundrie times publikely acted by the Right Honourable, the Lord Chamberlaine his seruants’. The play may have been first performed by the Lord Chamberlain’s Men at the Theatre. The only surviving records for early performances are the payments made by the Lord Chamberlain to John Heminge in May 1613 for presenting several plays, including Much Ado About Nothing, for Princess Elizabeth (daughter of James I) and Frederick, Elector Palatine, who were married that year. Shakespeare wrote the part of Dogberry for the comic actor William Kemp.

Publication in quarto and folio

Much Ado About Nothing appeared in three editions before 1642.

  • First and only quarto, 1600. Probably printed from Shakespeare’s foul papers, in this case his last complete draft before transcribing the fair copy.
  • First folio, 1623. Printed from the quarto edition, which was apparently cursorily annotated from the promptbook.
  • Second folio, 1632. Printed from the first folio.

Much Ado About Nothing was among a number of plays entered in the Stationers’ Register on 4 August 1600 as ‘to be staied’. This entry has not been conclusively explained, one theory being that the Lord Chamberlain’s Men were laying claim to payment if the play should be printed. On 23 August 1600, the play was entered in the Stationers’ Register to Andrew Wise and William Aspley. The first, and only, quarto of Much Ado About Nothing was printed for them that year by Valentine Simmes.

British Library copies of Much Ado About Nothing contains detailed bibliographic descriptions of all the quarto copies of the play.

Shakespeare’s sources

Shakespeare used a handful of sources for Much Ado About Nothing.

  • Lodovico Ariosto, translated by Sir John Harington, Orlando Furioso (1591). Canto 5 of the poem provided Shakespeare with the marriage between Hero and Claudio and Don John’s plot to prevent it.

    Shakespeare’s source for Claudio’s rejection of Hero. Lodovico Ariosto, Orlando Furioso
    Shakespeare's source for Claudio's rejection of Hero. Lodovico Ariosto, Orlando Furioso, 1591. British Library, C.70.g.1, p. 32. Larger image

  • Matteo Bandello, La Prima Parte de le Nouelle (1554). The 22nd of Bandello’s novellas gave Shakespeare the setting in Messina, as well as contributing to the marriage plot involving Hero, Claudio, and Don John.
  • Matteo Bandello, translated by François de Belleforest, Le Troisiesme Tome des Histoires Tragiques Extraittes des Oeuvres Italiennes de Bandel (1569). Shakespeare could have used either Bandello’s Italian original or the translation and adaptation by Belleforest.
  • Baldassare Castiglione, translated by Sir Thomas Hoby, The Courtier (1588). This work was perhaps Shakespeare’s source for the romance between Beatrice and Benedick.

Story of the play

Note: the links below will take you to the page in the quarto where each act begins, according to standard modern editions. (The quartos themselves have no act divisions.) The quarto shown for each play is always the earliest in the Library's collection - unless it is a 'bad' quarto in which case it is the earliest 'good' quarto.

Much Ado About Nothing is set in Messina, Sicily.

(Act 1) Don Pedro, Prince of Aragon, and his followers arrive at the house of Leonato, Governor of Messina on their way home from the wars. Claudio, one of Don Pedro’s men, is in love with Leonato’s daughter Hero. Benedick, another of Don Pedro’s men, rails against marriage. Don Pedro agrees to woo Hero on Claudio’s behalf. Don John, the disaffected bastard half-brother of Don Pedro, hears this and determines to prevent the match.

(Act 2) Beatrice, Leonato’s neice, disparages men and declares herself against marriage. Don Pedro, Claudio, Benedick and others enter in masks for an evening’s revels. Don Pedro takes Hero aside. Beatrice and Benedick exchange sharp witticisms. Don Pedro tells Claudio that Hero will marry him, and her father Leonato consents to the match. Don John plots with his follower Borachio to thwart the marriage. Benedick overhears Don Pedro, Claudio and others talking about Beatrice’s love for him. Unaware that they are fooling him, Benedick decides that he is in love with Beatrice.

(Act 3) Beatrice overhears Hero and her gentlewomen talking of Benedick’s love for her. She does not realise they are tricking her, and decides that she is in love with Benedick. Don John persuades Don Pedro and Claudio that Hero has a lover. The men of the watch overhear Borachio boasting of his part in the plot to discredit Hero. They arrest him. The constable Dogberry tries to tell Leonato of their discovery, but is asked to wait until after Hero’s wedding.

(Act 4) Claudio rejects Hero as the wedding ceremony is in progress. She faints, as he, Don Pedro and the other guests leave. Leonato agrees that news of Hero’s death should be published, in the hope that Claudio will suffer remorse and her name be cleared. Beatrice and Benedick confess their love for each other. Beatrice demands that, to prove his love, Benedick should challenge Claudio to a duel. Benedick agrees. Dogberry questions Borachio about the plot against Hero and resolves to take the evidence to Leonato. Don John has fled from Messina in secret.

(Act 5) Leonato accuses Don Pedro and Claudio of causing Hero’s death. Benedick challenges Claudio. Before they can fight, Dogberry arrives with Borachio who confesses the plot against Hero. Leonato offers Claudio his neice, who is very like Hero, in marriage and Claudio accepts. Benedick asks and receives Leonato’s permission to marry Beatrice. Leonato’s neice arrives, masked. She reveals that she is, in fact, Hero. Beatrice and Benedick learn of the trick played on them, but agree to marry nevertheless. A messenger arrives with news that Don John has been arrested, but the company continue with celebrations for the forthcoming double marriage.


 The basics Background The afterlife The texts 
Expert views References Links Glossary Partners