The “Merry War” of  Much Ado About Nothing

NapaShakes Dramaturg Dr. Philippa Kelly
on the “Merry War” of  
Much Ado About Nothing

“You must not, sir, mistake my niece. There is a kind of merry war betwixt Signior Benedick and her: they never meet but there’s a skirmish of wit between them.” (Leonato, Much Ado About Nothing.) Much Ado, Shakespeare’s tempestuous romance reimagined by director Max Webster and coming to us from London after a smash-hit UK tour, is moved along largely by eavesdropping, mishearing and gossip. Shot through

with the acerbic puns and jokes hurled back and forth by Beatrice and Benedick, Much Ado is at once hilarious, unnerving in its twists and turns, and deeply moving. It’s about mistaken intentions. It’s about passion, betrayal, loyalty. And it’s about the vulnerable creatures we all of us become when we fall in love.

Much Ado takes place in an intensely claustrophobic social world, where everyone seems to know every one else’s business and eavesdropping and gossip are rife. There never seems to be more than a hedge between the characters, as if they are all prying on each other, and being spied on, in a maze. The play is set in Messina, Sicily, on the side closest to the toe of the boot of Italy. It’s the home of Leonato (the governor), and his family. His niece, Beatrice, is an orphan, though not “parentless” in Shakespeare’s playwriting history. Her ancestor, ten years before, can be found in the awkward, loveable Kate of The Taming of The Shrew, who thinks she can do without love, and tries, with all her might, to prove it.…

The hilarity in Much Ado doesn’t stop with the crazy capers between Beatrice and Benedick (which eventually solemnize into declarations of love). The mad mood is underscored by Dogberry and his colleagues from the police station, whose earnest discharge of their duties yields information that could block impending harm, if only those “upstairs” would listen. The policemen come to tell Leonato an important truth, but Leonato dismisses their garbled language as harmless nonsense, telling them to let him get on with his business and have a drink on their way out. This might seem odd, since it’s early in the morning. But not in Shakespeare’s time – upper-class people like Leonato often drank wine and ale with their breakfast.

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