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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


"‘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.

"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.

"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.

"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.

"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.

"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.

"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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