I read this play back when I was in college, and what the professor who taught the class said about it was something that stayed with me ever since. He asserted that in Elizabethan times, “nothing” was a reference to female genitalia. A man had a thing, and a woman had no thing. So basically, you could rename this play “Much Ado About _____” (fill in the blank with your favorite vaginal slang). So when you read the play from this perspective, you quickly notice all the sexual puns and innuendos hidden within the text, which is something I figured we could explore in this post.
Early in the play, Benedick, one of the main characters, asserts that he will forever remain a bachelor, claiming that women are prone to fooling around and making cuckolds of their husbands.
That a woman conceived me, I thank her; that she
brought me up, I likewise give her most humble
thanks: but that I will have a recheat winded in my
forehead, or hang my bugle in an invisible baldrick,
all women shall pardon me. Because I will not do
them the wrong to mistrust any, I will do myself the
right to trust none; and the fine is, for the which
I may go the finer, I will live a bachelor.
(Act I, scene i)
It is also worth noting that his name can be broken down into bene dick, or good dick. According to Oxford Dictionary, the word dick started being used in the 1500’s as a term representing a fellow, or man, in the general sense (https://www.lexico.com/definition/dick). I don’t know whether Shakespeare intended to pun to mean “good man” or “good penis,” but certainly both apply to modern interpretations.
As the play progresses, Don John spreads some lies to make Claudio believe Hero, his betrothed, is not a virgin. Claudio then slut-shames Hero on their scheduled wedding day, in front of her and her family.
Sweet prince, you learn me noble thankfulness.
There, Leonato, take her back again:
Give not this rotten orange to your friend;
She’s but the sign and semblance of her honour.
Behold how like a maid she blushes here!
O, what authority and show of truth
Can cunning sin cover itself withal!
Comes not that blood as modest evidence
To witness simple virtue? Would you not swear,
All you that see her, that she were a maid,
By these exterior shows? But she is none:
She knows the heat of a luxurious bed;
Her blush is guiltiness, not modesty.
(Act IV, scene i)
So if we consider what has happened, Don John’s lies have made something out of nothing, or made a big deal about a woman’s supposed sexuality. And why would men make such an ado about a woman’s sexuality? Shakespeare quickly follows up in the same scene by pointing out that it is the biblical belief that a woman was responsible for original sin, and that a woman’s sexual desire is equated to a fall from grace and a loss of virtue.
Wherefore! Why, doth not every earthly thing
Cry shame upon her? Could she here deny
The story that is printed in her blood?
Do not live, Hero; do not ope thine eyes:
For, did I think thou wouldst not quickly die,
Thought I thy spirits were stronger than thy shames,
Myself would, on the rearward of reproaches,
Strike at thy life. Grieved I, I had but one?
Chid I for that at frugal nature’s frame?
O, one too much by thee! Why had I one?
Why ever wast thou lovely in my eyes?
Why had I not with charitable hand
Took up a beggar’s issue at my gates,
Who smirch’d thus and mired with infamy,
I might have said ‘No part of it is mine;
This shame derives itself from unknown loins’?
But mine and mine I loved and mine I praised
And mine that I was proud on, mine so much
That I myself was to myself not mine,
Valuing of her,–why, she, O, she is fallen
Into a pit of ink, that the wide sea
Hath drops too few to wash her clean again
And salt too little which may season give
To her foul-tainted flesh!
(Act IV, scene i)
In the final act, Don Pedro delivers four lines which for me encapsulate the essence of this play.
Gentlemen both, we will not wake your patience.
My heart is sorry for your daughter’s death:
But, on my honour, she was charged with nothing
But what was true and very full of proof.
(Act V, scene i)
I interpret this as asserting that Hero was deemed guilty for no other reason than that she was female, or had no thing. There would be no ado if she had a thing. It appears to me that Shakespeare was asking the questions: What is the big deal about sex? Why do we care whether a woman is a virgin or not? Does a person’s sexual experience or gender matter all that much in the grand scheme of things? Why do we make much ado about nothing?
In our modern culture, we have made great strides toward equality and acceptance of one’s gender and sexuality, even though we still have a ways to go. I think Shakespeare would be glad that we are making less ado about nothing.