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Historical Context in Much Ado About Nothing

Much Ado About Nothing was written in 1598, but the story takes place sometime around the 16th century during the Italian Wars in Messina, Italy. Shakespeare’s characters thus come from many different places in Europe and Italy, including Aragon, Padua, and Florence. Although Much Ado About Nothing has romantic elements which might lead some to call it a romance, it is generally considered a comedy, since its portrayal of love and marriage is humorous and outlandish rather than serious. Elizabethan audiences would have found Shakespeare’s meditations on love and court politics hilarious, because he pokes fun at the traditions and expectations surrounding love and marriage during his time.

Historical Context Examples in Much Ado About Nothing:

Act I - Scene I

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"‘In time the savage bull doth bear the yoke.’..."   (Act I - Scene I)

Don Pedro employs a vivid metaphor to foreshadow Benedick’s eventual surrender to the forces of love. The phrase itself is drawn from the work of Elizabethan poet Thomas Watson. In Watson’s 1582 collection Hekatompathia, Sonnet 47 opens with the line, “In time the Bull is brought to wear the yoke.” That line was, in turn, taken from the Italian poet Seraphine, whose Sonnetto 103 begins, “Col tempo et Villanello all giogo mena/El Tor si fiero, e si crudo animale”—which roughly translates into Watson’s line. Shakespeare fittingly returns the metaphor to the mouth of an Italian character.

"Messina..."   (Act I - Scene I)

As with many of his plays, Shakespeare decided to set the events of Much Ado About Nothing in Italy. The specific setting is Messina, a seaport on the island of Sicily. Shakespeare drew much of the material in Much Ado About Nothing from a 1554 novella by the Italian writer Matteo Bandello entitled La Prima Parte de le Nouelle. Bandello’s novel provided the setting of Messina, as well as the core love story between Claudio and Hero.

"if Cupid have not spent all his quiver in Venice,..."   (Act I - Scene I)

A reference to Venice, which was a city with a reputation for wild affairs between men and women.

"but in the force of his will...."   (Act I - Scene I)

Benedick's willfulness is the only thing that allows him to argue such things about women.  In Elizabethan thought, willfulness was considered to be a serious flaw in a gentleman.

"Where is my cousin, your son?..."   (Act I - Scene II)

In modern terms, this would be Leonato's nephew.  In Elizabethan times, the word cousin is loosely used to mean any relatively close relative.

"born under Saturn..."   (Act I - Scene III)

Shakespeare believed that the position of the planets influenced a person’s temperament. He subscribed to ancient cosmology, influenced by Greek philosophers like Aristotle. Here, Don John mentions those born under Saturn as having a melancholic temperament and a gloomy nature.

"like an usurer's chain?..."   (Act II - Scene I)

A “usurer” is a person who lends money with interest. The term is usually used to connote someone who specifically lends money with very high rates of interest. During Elizabethan times, merchants were the main usurers, and gold chains were a fashion amongst them.

"Hundred Merry Tales..."   (Act II - Scene I)

“Hundred Merry Tales” is the title of one of Shakespeare’s book of jests, which contains comical anecdotes about foolish clergymen and unfaithful wives (among other things.)

"You may light on a husband that hath no beard...."   (Act II - Scene I)

During the Elizabethan era, women were not allowed to perform on the stage, so men would play the roles of both female and male characters. Typically, female characters would have been played by young men without facial hair. Thus when a young man’s beard came in, it was a sign that he was old enough to begin playing adult male roles. Since a young man would have played Beatrice in Much Ado About Nothing, this conversation about beards becomes an ironic indirect reference to this tradition.

"By my troth, niece, thou wilt never get thee a husband if thou be so shrewd of thy tongue...."   (Act II - Scene I)

Leonato suggests that Beatrice scares off potential suitors because she is very blunt and outspoken. His remark reflects the problematic societal ideology during Shakespeare’s time that women needed to be docile and “gentle” in order to attract men. Beatrice is neither of these things; she is witty, candid, and refuses to conform to these confining social expectations.

"sunburnt..."   (Act II - Scene I)

In Elizabethan times, someone who is sunburnt would be considered part of the working class.  Gentlewomen try to stay as fair as possible so protect themselves from the sun.

"that I stood like a man at a mark, with a whole army shooting at me..."   (Act II - Scene I)

During an archery contest, a contestant stood at the target to mark the arrows of other contestants—depending on the skill of the archers, this could be a fatal position.

"The poison of that lies in you to temper. Go you to the prince your brother; spare not to tell him that he hath(20) wronged his honour in marrying the renowned Claudio whose estimation do you mightily hold up, to a contaminated stale, such a one as Hero...."   (Act II - Scene II)

In Elizabethan times, it was expected that middle- and upper-class women retain their virginity until they were married. If a women did lose her virginity before marriage, she would be subject to social scorn, ridicule, and would bring shame on her family and future husband. Here, Don John suggests that after his plot Hero will seem “contaminated” to Claudio because she will no longer be a virgin. It would then be shameful for Claudio to marry her.

"thousand ducats..."   (Act II - Scene II)

A ducat (also, a Venetian ducat) was equal to a Crown or five shillings in Shakespeare's day.  Twenty shillings equaled a Pound Sterling, so a thousand ducats would allow Borachio to live in luxury for at least a couple of years.

"desperate outrage..."   (Act II - Scene III)

In Elizabethan times, suicide was considered a “desperate outrage” because it was seen as a sin against the church and against God. Suicide was thought to destroy the “gift of life” that God had created. Further, since the church and the monarchy ruled Elizabethan England, suicide was not only sin, it was illegal. Those who were caught having attempted suicide would have been placed on trial and faced punishment.

"I am a Jew. ..."   (Act II - Scene III)

In Shakespeare's time, Jews were a distrusted minority in England.  After having been officially expelled by King Edward I in 1290 (the Edict of Expulsion), Jews who remained in England practiced their religion in secret and tried to blend into the population.  The prejudice that caused their expulsion 1290 still existed when Shakespeare wrote this play in about 1600.

"press me to death with wit..."   (Act III - Scene I)

This is, of course, meant to be a funny image, but it is based on the Elizabethan judicial act of "pressing" suspected criminals (who haven't plead guilty or innocent) by piling stones on their chest until they either plead guilty or innocent or die from the weight.

"and from all fashions..."   (Act III - Scene I)

That is, and so different from what is accepted as proper behavior.  In Shakespeare's time, behavior and health were believed to be governed by *humours, *all of which needed to be in balance for a person to function properly.  Beatrice would be viewed as out-of-balance.

"like favourites, Made proud by princes, that advance their pride(10) Against that power that bred it..."   (Act III - Scene I)

A veiled comment on Prince John,  who rebelled against his brother.  In a larger sense, Shakespeare is making a political statement that applies to disloyalty and rebellion in general, not an uncommon problem in Elizabethan times when the Queen dealt with numerous plots against her right to rule.

" Is little Cupid'..."   (Act III - Scene I)

By the Renaissance and Elizabethan periods, Cupid, the god of love, is described as an infant-angel, no longer the crafty god of the Greeks and Romans.

"tennis balls...."   (Act III - Scene II)

Tennis balls were previously stuffed with all kinds of different things, one of which was human hair. Claudio is joking about Benedick’s new clean-shaven appearance.

"Dutchman to-day, a Frenchman to-morrow..."   (Act III - Scene II)

Don Pedro's list of nationalities centers on England's most powerful enemies during the Elizabethan period.  The image is grotesque and politically correct at the same time.

"I have the toothache...."   (Act III - Scene II)

In Shakespeare's time, lovers with unrequited love were said to be troubled with toothaches.

"deformed..."   (Act III - Scene III)

“The Tudor Myth,” a representation of fifteenth century England as an age of darkness and bloodshed, was a literary tradition that began in the sixteenth century . Part of this myth depicted Richard III as a horrible villain, and since his back was deformed, physical deformity became associated with an evil temperament. This association extended into literature and plays, including Shakespeare’s. Here, Shakespeare connects physical deformity with villainy.

"'Twill be heavier soon by the weight of a man...."   (Act III - Scene IV)

This line is a double entendre, meaning that it is open to two interpretations. On the one hand, Margaret is making a comical innuendo that after marriage Hero will lie with her husband: "his weight will literally make her heart heavier." However, we can also read this figuratively. In the Renaissance, passionate love was often described as a kind of disease. Margaret’s line thus suggests that Hero’s marriage to Claudio could bring with it a sadness that would make her heart feel even heavier.

"In some reclusive and religious life,..."   (Act IV - Scene I)

In the Middle Ages and up to the 19th century, it was very common for a woman of the upper classes who had some kind of embarrassing trouble to be sent to a convent or other religious retreat.  As far as the world is concerned, the woman just disappeared from worldly life.

"I am a gentleman..."   (Act IV - Scene II)

In Shakespeare's time (and into the 19th century), a gentleman was a person in the middle class or upper middle class, just below nobility.

"Lord Lackbeard..."   (Act V - Scene I)

Benedick refers to Claudio as “Lord Lackbeard” to insult his lack of a beard and suggesting that Claudio is youthful and “unmanly.” Note too, that Shakespeare here associates beards with combat, further emphasizing the beard as a symbol for masculinity since during Shakespeare’s time women could not fight in battle.

"The god of love,      That sits above And knows me, and knows me,      How pitiful I deserve—..."   (Act V - Scene II)

This is an example to trite rhyming and is most likely a reference to a common love song from Shakespeare’s time. Notice that Benedick focuses on common love poetry when he considers writing a sonnet rather than the lauded sonnet sequences of poets such as Sidney or Petrarch.

"Will you then write me a sonnet in praise of my beauty?..."   (Act V - Scene II)

The Elizabethan sonnet tradition evolved out of Petrarch's Italian sonnet. These were 14-line poems written in iambic pentameter in which a speaker would talk about her desire for an unattainable love object. Sonnet sequences, a collection of 150 sonnets that slowly told an unrequited love story, became popular in the 1580s with Philip Sidney’s Astrophil and Stella. However, because of this popularity, many imitation writers were drawn to the form. This changed the popular opinion of sonnets as a high form of literature to something more common and formulaic, much like some modern day pop songs.

"monument..."   (Act V - Scene III)

A “monument” in this context is the family’s tomb. In Elizabethan England, rich families would be buried together in a single tomb or mausoleum. Claudio and the Prince are here because they believe Hero is dead.

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