Much Ado About Nothing abbreviated

The play opens in the port city of Messina, in Sicily, as Don Pedro arrives, the Prince of Aragon, the leader of a group of soldiers.  Don Pedro, generally known here as the Prince, is warmly greeted by Leonato, Messina’s governor.  Leonato is accompanied by his beautiful daughter, Hero, and his niece, Beatrice.  The Prince lets Leonato know that their recent “action” has gone well, having lost “but few of any sort,” Leonato responding “A victory is twice itself when the achiever brings home full numbers.” 

Among the soldiers who arrive with the Prince are Benedick and Claudio, the male leads in the play.  Benedick has known Leonato’s niece Beatrice for some time and for background purposes, both have snappy personalities and both claim marriage to be the last thing on their minds.  Claudio, the more innocent of the two soldiers, falls for Hero at first sight, their relationship becoming central to the play.  The play’s other central theme is the slowly improving relationship between Beatrice and Benedick. (Tease, Act 1, Scene 1)

The play moves forward quickly, Benedick soon letting the Prince know that he believes that Claudio has fallen for Hero.  As a goodwill gesture, the well-meaning Prince suggests to Claudio that during Leonato’s masquerade party that evening, celebrating their arrival, he’ll put in a good word for him with her father.  As well, he lets Claudio know that he will be attending the dinner party in disguise, with plans in fact to masquerade as Claudio, and that he’ll use the opportunity to let Hero know how much he (Claudio) loves her.  Naively, Claudio agrees to the plan and is most grateful. (Courtesy, Act 1, Scene 1)

The disguised Prince does dance with Hero during the party, saying such things as “speak low if you speak of love.”  Also wearing a mask is Benedick who dances with Beatrice.  But Beatrice, claiming not to know who he is, aggressively teases him saying “Benedick is the prince’s jester, a very dull fool, and men laugh at him,” upsetting Benedick to say the least.

Separately and significantly, Don John, the Prince’s brother, a first rate scoundrel, hears from his aide Borachio that the masquerading Prince has been wooing Hero on his own behalf.  Don John sees this as an opportunity to cause some real distress for people. (Disclosure, Act 1, Scene 3)  As expected, Don John tells Claudio that the Prince was romancing Hero during the party, saying “I heard him swear his affection.”  Claudio innocently accepts his fate. (Insight, Act 2, Scene 1)

The more Benedick thinks about Beatrice’s taunts during the masquerade party, the more frustrated and angry he becomes. (Tease, Act 2, Scene 1) The Prince tells a confused Claudio of the success he had wooing Hero on Claudio’s behalf.  Leonato, having been well prepped by the Prince, moves right ahead with wedding plans for his daughter and Claudio.  He has quickly accepted Claudio as a prospective son-in-law. 

Borachio, acting on instructions from the mischievous Don John, hatches a plan to disrupt the couple’s wedding plans.  Borachio suggests that he will have his accommodating girlfriend Margaret, who also happens to be Hero’s gentlewoman, tell him that night from behind thin curtains in Hero’s open-windowed bedroom that she loves him.  He in turn, behind the curtains and open window, will call her “Hero.” (Deviousness, Act 2, Scene 2)

Benedick is alone in the garden with his thoughts when the Prince, Leonato and Claudio happen to come by. Benedick tries to hide from them, unaware that they have seen him. They know he doesn’t want to be seen. (Introspection, Act 2, Scene 3) They tease him without mercy, or gloriously, depending on your take, causing him to believe that Beatrice really does care for him.  He takes the bait. Benedick reflects on what he’s just heard as the three men exit. (Deviousness, Act 2, Scene 3) Beatrice soon enters, inviting Benedick to dinner.  Separately Leonato, euphoric over his team’s success in the teasing of Benedick, suggests that Hero and her gentlewoman (Ursula) need to find a way to trick Beatrice just as they, the men, have tricked Benedick.  Leonato’s plan works.

Ursula and Hero soon enter, taking a leisurely walk through the orchard where they grandly (or nastily) tease Beatrice, who has hidden herself in a thick bower, having been told by Margaret that the two women were about to talk about her.  Their message to Beatrice: Benedick loves her and she should treat him more kindly.  She buys the story, saying to herself “Benedick, love on; I will requite thee, taming my wild heart to thy loving hand.”  Separately, the Prince and Claudio confront Benedick and taunt him further, Claudio saying “The youth’s in love.” 

Don John, taking this charade perhaps a step too far, talks to Claudio about Hero.  He says “The lady is disloyal.”  Claudio doesn’t believe him.  Don John tells him to come to her chamber window that night and see for himself, and he does, having asked the Prince to join him. That night, in Hero’s chambers, Borachio tells a partially hidden Margaret that he loves her, calling her “Hero.”  Margaret, pretending to be Hero and having agreed to the ruse, hugs him. (Remorse, Act 3, Scene 3)

Shakespeare then adds some slapstick lightness through the actions and comments of constables and watchmen who find the men in Leonato’s garden.  Early the next evening, Dogberry, the constable, tries to tell Leonato his take on the prior evening’s events, but he is so inarticulate that Leonato dismisses him.  Leonato heads to the church for his daughter’s wedding. 

With the principals having assembled in the church, Leonato says “Come, Friar Francis, be brief.”  The ceremony begins. Claudio, shocking everyone, says “No” when asked if he will take Hero as his wife.  Following a few fitful moments and comments, Claudio asks Hero “What man was he talked with you yesternight out at your window betwixt twelve and one?”  Everyone is taken back. She’s mystified by the comment saying “I talked with no man at that hour, my lord.”  The Prince supports Claudio’s story.  Claudio says “O Hero, fare thee well, most foul, most fair.”  She faints. Claudio, the Prince and Don John hastily exit.  An angry Leonato, believing the story, irrationally says “Let her die.” (Anger, Act 4, Scene 1) Benedick suspects this could be one of Don John’s tricks.  The Friar calmly suggests that truth will out if they keep Hero under wraps and let out the word that she has died.  Leonato and Hero agree to the plan.  Friar Francis says “Come, lady, die to live.” (Proposal, Act 4, Scene 1)

Beatrice and Benedick come to a truce of sorts, each acknowledging that they love each other.  However, when Benedick says “Bid me do anything for thee,” Beatrice responds “Kill Claudio.” Following some negotiation, Benedick not quite believing the request says “I will challenge him.”  Meanwhile Borachio and Conrade are brought before the Sexton.  Following some more slapstick, the Sexton lets the two of them know that Don John has “secretly stolen away” and that it is reported that Hero “died suddenly” from grief. 

Leonato and his brother Anthony are on stage when Anthony suggests to his brother that for the sake of his health, among other reasons, he should back off from the harsh criticism of his daughter.  But Leonato abruptly rejects his advice. (Grief, Act 5, Scene 1) Claudio and the Prince enter.  Leonato lashes out at them as he and his brother exit.  Meanwhile, Borachio acknowledges to Claudio and the Prince that he had deceived them, placing all the blame on Don John, telling them he was paid well to play out his role, the two of them shocked over the revelation.  Leonato enters and he too learns from Borachio of the cruel hoax played on Hero.  Leonato provides a set of instructions that the Prince and Claudio need to follow to get back in his good graces.  But he doesn’t let them know that Hero lives. (Proposal, Act 5, Scene 1)  The Prince and Claudio, humbled as they are, agree to the terms.  Separately, Beatrice learns from Ursula that Hero “hath been falsely accused.” 

Following Leonato’s instructions, Claudio and the Prince perform some of their penance at Hero’s purported tomb.  Another part of the deal reached with Leonato is that Claudio must marry Leonato’s brother’s daughter who is “almost the copy of my child.”  The second wedding ceremony is staged and the women enter masked.  Claudio marries the appointed masked young lady, believing her to be Anthony’s daughter.  Hero then unmasks.  Claudio is ecstatic.  Benedick and Beatrice marry, almost backing into their commitment.  For the first time Benedick appears to be happy. (Contrition, Act 5, Scene 4) They all learn that Don John is to be returned to Messina to be dealt with later.  They dance.

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