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MUCH ADO ABOUT NOTHING was entered in the Stationers' Register, 4th August 1600, and the only Quarto edition appeared in the same year. It is very accurate, and probably authentic; the Folio being reprinted from it with a few omissions and some slight, apparently accidental, variations of no value. Its title runs :
Much adoe about Nothing. As it hath been sundrie times publikely acted by the right honourable, the Lord Chamberlaine his seruants. | Written by William Shakespeare. | London. Printed by V. S. for Andrew Wise, and William Aspley. | 1600.
Beyond a list of the players, among whom the famous comedian Kemp figured as Dogberry,2 nothing is known of these performances; but the play, which is not mentioned by Meres (1598) and is bound by close affinities of temper and style to As You Like It and Twelfth Night, was undoubtedly, in its finished form, a fruit, like these, of the rich years 1599-1600. Like these, too, it contains no definite traces of earlier work. An interesting oversight in i. 1., where Leonato is said to enter accompanied, not only by Hero his daughter and Beatrice his niece, but by 'Imogen his wife,' tantalises the imagination with visions of a prefixed to most of Dogberry's speeches.
1 Prefixed in the First Folio. ? In iv. 2., also, Kemp' is
second Hermione championing a slandered Perdita,1 -another glimpse of that relationship of mother and daughter, so rarely touched by Shakespeare. But the theory of a 'revision' (the cheap panacea in some hands for the slightest discrepancy) is wholly unsupported by criteria of style. The dramatic manner of Much Ado is flexible in the highest degree, but it is not at all composite. The subsequent fortunes of the play were not, for one of the masterpieces of English comedy, eventful. It was one of the six plays of Shakespeare chosen for performance at the wedding festivities of the Princess Elizabeth in 1613, and, except the unmatched 'Sir John Falstaff' (as Henry IV. was called) and the new, or recent, Tempest and Winter's Tale, the only comedy. Up to the closing of the theatres it continued to fascinate high and low.
Let but Beatrice
So wrote Leonard Digges in 1640. But after the Restoration its brilliance was already a little out of date, and the play might have gone off the boards had it not occurred to Sir W. Davenant to eke out its deficiencies by fusing it with Measure for Measure, the two being 'believ'd' (as Langbaine puts it) to have Wit enough in them to make one good play.' The result was his The Law against Lovers, witnessed by Pepys in 1661 and published in 1673.
The serious plot of Much Ado is founded on the story of Timbreo and Fenicia, the twenty-second of Bandello's novels, which Shakespeare perhaps read as paraphrased by Belleforest in his Histoires Tragiques. Timbreo is the victim of a plot similar to that laid
1 In ii. 1. the stage direction also mentions, but without
naming, Leonato's wife among the persons who enter.
against Claudio. But its author is a jealous rival, Girondo, and its agent not a counterfeit presenter of the lady but a servant 'perfumed' like a lover, whom he causes to ascend by night to Fenicia's chamber window before Timbreo's eyes. Timbreo sends a message to her parents, breaking off the match. Fenicia, overcome with the humiliation, pines away, but, when apparently at the point of death, suddenly revives. Her parents thereupon send her secretly to a distant retreat, giving out that she is in fact dead, and burying an empty coffin with solemn ceremony. Girondo repents, confesses, and begs Timbreo to take his life. Fenicia is restored, and Timbreo recovers his old fiancée under the semblance of a new.
A much superior form of the plot-incident in this fantastic tale was to be found in Ariosto's story of Ariodante and Genevra (Orl. Fur. c. v.). Here the Duke of Albany, Polynesso, a rejected lover of Genevra, similarly beguiles Ariodante, his successful rival. But instead of the perfumed serving-man, he resorts to an abandoned mistress of his own, Genevra's maid, inducing her innocently to appear at her lady's window in her lady's dress. The sequel differs; Genevra's imagined guilt is less lightly pardoned, and she is only rescued from death by the timely intervention of the champion Rinaldo.
The story in both forms had long been familiar in England. Even before the appearance of Harington's translation of the Orlando in 1591, it had been translated in verse by Turbervile and Beverley; and a nameless playwright had produced a (lost) 'Historie of Ariodante and Genevora,' which was 'showed before her Majestie on Shrove Tuesdaie at night, in 1583.' Spenser also introduced it into the tale of Sir Guyon (F. Q. ii. 4), qualifying it for its place in the allegory of Temperance by a new conclusion in which the
deceived lover, an example of headstrong fury, actually slays the innocent Claribella and vainly endeavours to slay her handmaid.
Such a story involved a nearer approach to a tragic action and to tragic pathos than anything in As You Like It or Twelfth Night. Rosalind's banishment on pain of death is but a shadowy threshold across which she steps blithely into the magic woodlands of Arden. Even the 'concealment' which preys on the damask cheek of Viola cannot compare in poignancy with the slanderous outrage which crushes Hero. Yet we are never in danger of anticipating a tragic issue. Nowhere is the art more delicate with which Shakespeare communicates to the hearer an indefinable assurance that all will go well. In the earlier Comedies he achieved this by making the controller of the harms essentially amiable and humane. The duke who condemns Egeus in The Comedy of Errors, Theseus, who threatens the lovers in the Midsummer-Night's Dream, satisfy us in spite of themselves that the cruelties these charming persons promise will not come off. In the later Comedies his plan is a subtler and more difficult one. He admits as contrivers of harm persons purely malign and criminal, like Stephano and Antonio in The Tempest, and Don John in our play, or fatuously cruel, like Leontes, in The Winter's Tale, and Frederick in As You Like It. Far from being more amiable than his prototype in Bandello, Don John is a more unmitigated scoundrel—the purest embodiment, perhaps, in all Shakespeare of cynical egoism. He has neither Girondo's excuse of rivalry in love nor his after-virtue of penitence; he hails the announcement of an intended marriage before he knows whose it is, with the eager question, 'Will it serve as a model to build mischief on? But egoism so unalloyed as his is self-destructive; and the
sense that it is so tempers the foreboding it inspires. He is a 'plain-dealing villain,' whose 'tart looks' give fair warning of his disposition; one too indolent and too dull to arm himself with the successful criminal's weapons of hypocrisy and craft. He is generally shunned by the brilliant Messina society; alternately spurned and indulged by the prince. Unlike Edmund and Iago he captivates no friends, and his only associate is his tool Borachio, who sees quite through 'the devil, my master,' and provides the brains to his malice and gold. The cunning of this associate tends somewhat to neutralise the reassuring effect of Don John's insignificance; but his communicativeness betrays the secret which his master's morose temper would have concealed; and the accidental coalition of a passing shower, an opportune penthouse, and a 'vigitant' watchman, ensures the final discovery.
The play is only half through, but here is the beginning of the end. Under ordinary conditions the discovery must follow at once, Hero would be vindicated before the marriage, and the whole scheme of the drama would dissolve. It was necessary that the discovery should be foreseen when that otherwise too harrowing scene takes place, but that it should not be actually made. This double result is secured by the admirable creations of Dogberry and Verges. Even Coleridge could regard them as somewhat irrelevant figures 'forced into the service' of the plot, 'when any other less ingeniously absurd watchmen and night constables would have answered the mere necessities of the action.' But the gist of the invention lies just in their being 'ingeniously absurd' in the particular way in which they are. Nothing but their delicious irrelevance prevents the truth from reaching Leonato in time; but-' neighbours, you are tedious,'