Shakespeare’s uproarious comedy, Much Ado About Nothing, is a rollicking story full of goofy clowns, star-crossed lovers and some deliciously wicked villains. The play takes place in Messina, on the island of Sicily, in Italy and centers around the family and friends of Leonato, governor of Messina.

As the play begins, Leonato receives word of approaching visitors, returning home from war: Don Pedro, Prince of Aragon and his officers Claudio of Florence and Benedick of Padua. Also arriving is Don Pedro’s bastard brother Don John, who comes as a prisoner, having led an unsuccessful rebellion against his brother the Prince. When the triumphant soliders arrive, they are jovially greeted by Leonato, his daughter Hero, his niece Beatrice and others. But it is Benedick who livens things up with a few ‘off color’ jokes which provoke Beatrice to step in, with: ‘I wonder that you will still be talking, Signior Benedick: nobody marks you.’ To which the equally quick-witted Benedick replies “My dear Lady Distain, are you yet living?” Thus the audience captures a first (but certainly not the last!) glance at the ‘merry war’ between these two sharp-witted protagonists!

Leonato invites his guests to stay for a month. Don Pedro heartily agrees and everyone goes inside – except Claudio, who stops Benedick to shyly ask “didst thou note the daughter of Senior Leonato?” Young Claudio has been eyeing the modest lady Hero and has quite fallen in love with her! Benedick mocks Claudio for falling in love, but when Don Pedro returns, the Prince agrees Hero and Claudio would make a good match and he offers to help. As Claudio is shy, Don Pedro proposes to woo Hero in Claudio’s name at a masked ball that will take place later that night. Says the Prince: “And the conclusion is, she shall be thine. In practice let us put it presently.”

Now we get to the antagonists of the story – Conrad and Borachio, who are loyal to Don John. Don John tells us outright: “It must not be denied but I am a plain-dealing villain.” Borachio has overheard the discussion of a marriage between Hero and Claudio and suggests they attempt to thwart the engagement. Don John heartily agrees to anything that will make mischief for his enemies.

Meanwhile, Leonato’s house is a flurry of excitement as everyone prepares for the masked ball. Don Pedro and his entourage arrive masked and there is high-spirited dancing. True to his word, Don Pedro woos Hero in Claudio’s name. Of course, it doesn’t take long for Beatrice and Benedick to go at it again, using their masks as a convenient facade to insult each other.

As the dancing concludes, Don John, who has been waiting for his moment, approaches Claudio, pretending to recognize him as Benedick. Don John deliberately plants a seed of doubt in Claudio’s mind that maybe…just maybe…Don Pedro is wooing Hero for himself! Claudio is easily persuaded, but before too much damage can be done, Don Pedro returns with “Here, Claudio, I have wooed in thy name, and fair Hero is won; name the day of marriage and God give thee joy!” At first the jealous Claudio thinks the Prince has won Hero for himself, but soon he realizes that Hero has agreed to be his wife and has the consent of her father to the match.

Everyone congratulates the couple, as Beatrice, to everyone’s surprise, bemoans her own lack-of-husband! Don Pedro asks Beatrice if she would consider him as a suitable spouse, and she, comparing him to fancy clothes, replies that he would be too valuable for her to ‘wear’ every day. As she leaves, Don Pedro exclaims “She were an excellent wife for Benedick” to which Leonato replies ‘Oh, my lord, if they were but a week married, they would talk themselves mad.’ Don Pedro hatches a plot to help the two sparring wits fall in love: “if we can do this, Cupid’s glory shall be ours, for we are the only love-gods!” Now Don John, having been thwarted in his first attempt at mischief, tells Borachio “any bar, any cross, any impediment would be medicinable to me.” Borachio has a new plan, which he lays out in detail. Borachio has been flirting with Hero’s friend, Margaret; he proposes to woo Margaret at Hero’s chamber-window and make Claudio believe that he is wooing an amenable Hero. Claudio, seeing this, will think that Hero is being disloyal to him with Borachio. Of course, after this Claudio would never marry her!

But, this is a comedy after all, so before that happens, Don Pedro, Leonato, and Claudio find Benedick alone, extolling the virtues of his imaginary-perfect-wife. They take the opportunity to talk where Benedick cannot help but overhear them. Don Pedro gets the ball rolling by asking, loudly: “What was it you told me the other day – that your niece Beatrice was in love with signior Benedick?” Knowing they now have Benedick’s undivided attention, Leonato and Claudio confirm that Hero has told them Beatrice is so in love with Benedick that she will certainly die of grief if he does not return her love. Celebrating their own ingenuity, the gentlemen leave Benedick alone to his own thoughts: ‘Love me! Why it must be requited!’

Now that Benedick is caught in the net that has been spread for him, it is Hero’s turn to lay the same trap for Beatrice. Hero sends a messenger to tell Beatrice that Hero is talking about her behind her back, and, of course, Beatrice comes to listen in on the conversation. Timing things just perfectly, Ursula says: ‘But are you sure that Benedick loves Beatrice so entirely?’ Hero replies: ‘So says the prince, and my new-trothed lord; but I persuaded them, if they loved Benedick, never to let Beatrice know of it. I never yet saw a man, how wise, how noble but she would spell him backward.” And then, after extolling the virtues of Benedick and giggling over their own genius, the ladies go in to prepare for Hero’s wedding, scheduled for the next day’s. Alone, Beatrice, exclaims: ‘Benedick, love on! ‘

So now, both Beatrice and Benedick have fallen for the trap – both think the other is in love with them and vow to return that love in kind. But the wedding of Hero and Claudio fast-approaches, and the men-folk enjoy the frivolity of the day – until Don John approaches them. Don John is blunt: “I came hither to tell you, the lady is disloyal.” Naturally, Claudio and Don Pedro are not convinced, but Don John, according to Borachio’s plan, invites them to join him under Hero’s chamber-window to see ‘proof’ of this disloyalty. Still uncertain, but swayed by Don John’s insistence, Claudio concludes “If I see any thing to-night why I should not marry her to-morrow in the congregation, where I should wed, there will I shame her.” And, sadly, because of Borachio’s scheming, Claudio believes he sees Hero with another man and his love for the innocent Hero converts to ill-conceived hatred.

But all is not lost. Not yet! Enter Dogberry, the utterly inept, but wholly hilarious constable of the town who comes to charge the night watchmen in their duties – that is to look for mischief around Leonato’s house, as there is quite the hubbub with preparations for the wedding! With him are his side-kick, Verges and several members of the night-watch including Hugh Otecake and George Seacole, who, not being the brightest crayons in the box, ask: “If we know {someone} to be a thief, shall we not lay hands on him? Dogberry, true to form, responds “ Truly, by your office, you may, but I think the most peacable way for you, if you do take a thief, is to let him show himself what he is and steal out of your company!” Dogberry and Verges leave the watch, who settle in for a good nap (for, as Dogberry says “I cannot see how sleeping should offend!”) But who should come stumbling by but Conrad and his drunken pal, Borachio, who bragging, spills the whole story: “I have to-night wooed Margaret, the Lady Hero’s gentlewoman, by the name of Hero; the prince, Claudio and my master saw afar off in the orchard this amiable encounter. Away went Claudio, enraged: swore he would shame her with what he saw o’er night and send her home again without a husband.” The Watch jump out of hiding and the bad guys are carted off in search of justice.

The next day, the ladies prepare for the wedding. Beatrice arrives, love-sick from head to toe, and is teased mercilessly by Margaret who declares “I am not such a fool to think that you are in love or that you will be in love or that you can be in love.” The conversation is cut short as the men arrived to escort the ladies to church for the wedding. Brace yourselves – this won’t be pretty.

Claudio and Hero come before a Friar and the whole congregation, and when asked if he will marry Hero, Claudio, passionately proclaims that Hero has been untrue. When Leonato demands proof, Don Pedro says simply: “Upon mine honour, / Myself, my brother and this grieved count / Did see her, hear her, at that hour last night / Talk with a ruffian at her chamber-window / Who hath indeed, most like a liberal villain, / Confess’d the vile encounters they have had / A thousand times in secret. ‘ Heart-struck, Hero swoons and falls to the ground. Don Pedro and Claudio (with Don John, reveling in his wickedness) leave, full of righteous indignation. Poor Leonato – he believes the story of his child’s shame and it is inconsolable, even as Beatrice and Benedick insist upon Hero’s innocence. It is the Friar who steps in to make all well again. As Hero appears to have died of shame, the Friar counsels Leonato to report that Hero is dead indeed while they search for the truth in the story the Prince has told. Leonato consents, and the Friar leads Hero away with: “Come, lady, die to live; this wedding-day perhaps is but prolong’d: have patience and endure.”

Beatrice and Benedick remain alone, all thoughts of merriment banished by Hero’s predicament. Somewhat uncomfortably, they each declare their love for the other. Benedick offers to prove his love to Beatrice, with: ‘Come, bid me do anything for you.’ Beatrice responds with: ‘Kill Claudio.’ When Benedick protests he cannot kill his friend, Beatrice announces: ‘Is not Claudio a villain, that has slandered, scorned, and dishonored my cousin? O, God, that I were a man! I would eat his heart in the marketplace.” Benedick, seeing her mind is set, agrees: ‘I am engaged; I will challenge him. By this hand, Claudio shall render me a dear account!’

Now we move to a local jail, where Dogberry and Verges have rounded up a judge and are attempting to reveal the truth – in their own peculiar ways. The Watch reveal what they overheard, and Dogberry proclaims “Villian! Thou wilt be condemned into everlasting redemption for this!” (you read right…he says redemption.) Dogberry calls for Borachio and Conrad to be bound, but before they can be, Conrad looks at Dogberry and declares…”you are an ass!” Dogberry’s proud response: ‘Masters, remember that I am an / ass; though it be not written down, yet forget not / that I am an ass!’

Meantime, Don Pedro and Claudio find themselves in the uncomfortable position of standing alone in their indignation; that is, until Dogberry and Verges arrive with Borachio and Conrad in tow. Borachio makes a full confession and proclaims Hero innocent, Margaret blameless, and Don John as the villain who paid him to carry out the plot. The truth is out. Leonato arrives and vents his wrath on Claudio and Don Pedro, who are overwhelmed with what they have done and agree to any penance Leonato will name. Leonato states: “And since you could not be my son-in-law, Be yet my nephew: my brother hath a daughter, Almost the copy of my child that’s dead; and she alone is heir to both of us.” Claudio agrees to marry this mysterious cousin and they agree to meet the next day, after Claudio has spent the night mourning Hero’s death. Leonato thanks Dogberry for his sleuthing and all depart.

Now we arrive at the final scene of the play. Leonato’s house is preparing for this second wedding, and when Don Pedro and Claudio arrive, the tension could be cut with a knife. Several ladies appear, masked and unrecognizable. Understanding his duty, Claudio asks: “Which is the lady I must seize upon?” Leonato indicates one of the maidens and Claudio swears to marry her, claiming he is her husband if she will have him. The mysterious woman answers: “And when I lived, I was your other wife: And when you loved, you were my other husband.” She pulls off her mask revealing that it is none other than the innocent Hero! Claudio is forgiven and all is right with the world. The young lovers are ready to continue the wedding celebration when Benedick steps forward, slyly asking which of the masked maidens is Beatrice. Benedick asks “Do not you love me?” and the embarrassed Beatrice replies “Why no; no more than reason.” Then Beatrice asks him “Do not you love me?” and he replies in kind. As the romantically inept couple try to maintain their dignity, Claudio and Hero pull out letters, written by Beatrice and Benedick, each declaring their love for each other. The merry-witted couple has been trumped – they realize the love they share is more important than their injured pride.

And so, the two mad wits and the two young lovers are united at last. Don John has been captured for his villainy. But the merry mood of the day is not to be destroyed, and Benedick concludes the story with: “Think not on him till tomorrow: I’ll devise thee brave punishments for him. Strike up pipers!”

– Written by Kate Magill for the Marin Shakespeare Company