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Much Ado About Nothing by William Shakespeare is a delightful comedy which plays out a number of Shakespeare's best loved themes: confusion between lovers, the battle of the sexes, and the restoration of love and marriage.
It also features two of Shakespeare's most formidable lovers: Benedick and Beatrice. These two characters spend the majority of the play bickering and then--as in all great romantic comedies--fall in love in the final acts.
Much Ado About Nothing begins in Messina, soon after the end of a war. A group of soldiers are returning, victorious. Amongst them are Don Pedro, Claudio (a handsome youth) and Benedick, who is known to be proficient both in the art of war and the art of speech. He is also a self-proclaimed woman-hater, who vows he will never settle down.
Soon, Claudio falls in love with a nobleman's daughter, Hero (a beautiful and quiescent young maiden), and they decide to marry. Hero's elder sister, Beatrice, is unlike her sister in that she has a fast tongue. She and Benedick enjoy baiting each other as both are clever and witty.
The lovers, along with the rest of Hero and Claudio's wedding party, decide to bring Benedick and Beatrice together. They perceive, perhaps, that there is already a spark of love between them. By the time the wedding comes around, the two are very much in love. But love is never easy in Shakespeare's plays, and on the eve of the wedding Don Pedro's bastard brother, Don John, decides to break up the marriage before it begins by trying to convince Claudio that his betrothed has been unfaithful.
Claudio goes on to the wedding and calls Hero a whore, disgracing her before the whole community. Beatrice and Hero's father hide the poor girl, and let it be known that she has died from the shame that Claudio unfairly placed upon her. In the meantime, Don John's henchmen are arrested by the local constable (whose malapropisms create a little comic relief) and the plot to besmirch Hero's name is exposed.
Claudio is wracked with grief. To make amends, he promises to marry Hero's sister, Beatrice. However, when he reaches the altar and lifts his wife's veil, he finds that he is marrying the woman he thought to be dead. The wedding is made into a double celebration when Benedick and Beatrice also decide to tie the knot.
The majority of the plot in Much Ado About Nothing revolves around Hero and Claudio, but Shakespeare's dramatic sympathies remain very clear. Benedick and Beatrice are ever at the center of our attention. They get the most stage time, as well as the majority of the best lines. With their gentle bickering, they hope to expose the frailties not only of their opponent, but also of his or her entire gender. These interchanges are early examples of what would become the fast-paced exchanges in modern screwball comedy.
With Much Ado About Nothing, Shakespeare also creates the first example of the romantic generic convention of the two romantic leads that love to hate each other. That they are "tricked" into loving each other is only possible because that love already resides in their hearts. They use their mutual animosity to cover their true feelings.
Of course, Much Ado About Nothing is never simply just a romantic comedy. Rather, the play creates a lighter, more frivolous counterpart to some of his darker tragedies. For example, like Romeo and Juilet, we see a lover pretend to be dead, hoping for a Romantic reconciliation with the man to whom she is betrothed. Unlike that tragedy, however, the lover does not realize his mistake too late.
The work is one of Shakespeare's most serious comedies, and also one of his most human. The back-and-forth between Benedick and Beatrice, and the triumphant finale in which the divine grace of love is celebrated has had a feel-good effect on its audience down the centuries. Beautifully written, and beautiful in its conception, Much Ado About Nothing, is one of Shakespeare's most delightful plays.