Tag Archives: drama

“I Was Cleopatra” by Dennis Abrams

My friend Robert sent me this book, knowing that I am a bit of a Shakespeare buff. It’s a work of historical fiction intended for a young adult audience. The story is a fictional memoir of a boy actor, John Rice, who assumed the female roles in performances during the rule of King James I.

Similar to what the world is experiencing now with COVID, the plague was rampant in the Jacobean period, and this led to the closing of theaters as a way to control the spread.

In 1603 the plague once again struck London with a terrible ferocity, bringing about the deaths of thousands of innocent men, women and children. To help stop the spread of the dreaded disease, which at its height was laying more than thirteen hundred innocents dead from one Sabbath to the next, it was ordered that theaters in London be closed.

(p. 17)

As John begins his apprenticeship and is groomed to transform himself into female roles on stage, he must confront questions of gender identity and seems to accept the idea of gender fluidity.

This was, or so it seems to me, at the heart of the questions that has haunted my thoughts and even my dreams throughout my life on stage. What exactly is it that makes one a man? Or a woman? Or is it possible to be composed of elements of both? Is there a difference between how you are seen by the world and how you see yourself?

(p. 50)

Some of the more interesting aspects of this book, for me anyway, are the fictional dialogs between Shakespeare and John Rice, as Shakespeare provides insight into the plays and various roles to help John better embody the role. One in particular stands out, where Shakespeare claims that the Guy Fawkes conspiracy helped inspire the themes he would explore in Macbeth.

“What concerns me, John, now that all involved in the nefarious Gunpowder Plot have been given the justice they deserved, is how and why it could have happened. Not merely the specific political and religious reasons for the plot, but in a larger sense how does a seemingly normal if ambitious Scottish nobleman become a murderous tyrant and perform such truly unthinkable and unutterable acts of violence? What sort of lies and stories and pretended reasons do such men tell themselves to justify their actions? Is the source of evil within themselves, or are they being acted upon by outside forces?”

(p. 115)

These are questions that are just as important today as they were in the 1600s. People somehow convince themselves that the cruel and violent acts they commit are somehow justified, even heroic. Is this a part of who we are as a species, or do we allow the words of others to enter our ears and poison our thoughts?

As always, thanks for stopping by and sharing in my musings. I hope you are well, and please stay safe and sane in these turbulent days.

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The Complete Plays of William Shakespeare

This past weekend was a milestone for Stuff Jeff Reads. After publishing my thoughts on The Tempest, I have officially covered every Shakespeare play on my blog. Fear not, though. If you are a Shakespeare fan, there are still plenty of sonnets, as well as some longer poems for me to read and write about.

So here is the list of all 38 plays, with links to my reviews. In addition, you can access everything in my archive via the Books & Poems by Author page. Enjoy, and never stop reading!

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Thoughts on “The Tempest” by William Shakespeare

I like this play a lot, and have read it and seen it performed multiple times. It is such a rich play that one could write volumes on it. Having said that, I decided that I would keep my post short and focus on one of Prospero’s passages that exemplifies the wonder of this play.

You do look, my son, in a moved sort,
As if you were dismay’d: be cheerful, sir.
Our revels now are ended. These our actors,
As I foretold you, were all spirits and
Are melted into air, into thin air:
And, like the baseless fabric of this vision,
The cloud-capp’d towers, the gorgeous palaces,
The solemn temples, the great globe itself,
Ye all which it inherit, shall dissolve
And, like this insubstantial pageant faded,
Leave not a rack behind. We are such stuff
As dreams are made on, and our little life
Is rounded with a sleep. Sir, I am vex’d;
Bear with my weakness; my, brain is troubled:
Be not disturb’d with my infirmity:
If you be pleased, retire into my cell
And there repose: a turn or two I’ll walk,
To still my beating mind.

(Act IV, scene i)

Reading this gives you the sense of a wise person nearing the end of their life. The revels of youth are over, and one must accept that we are but actors who have a fleeting role in the human drama. We are spiritual beings destined to melt back into the heavens. Our consciousness is but a dream, and when our sojourn is over, we will drift back into the eternal sleep, becoming one with the universal consciousness from which we emanated.

There is nothing I can say that can add to the splendor of this passage. It is, in my humble opinion, perfect in every way.

I hope you enjoyed this post, even though it was short. May it inspire you to make the most of life, before this insubstantial pageant fades away, into thin air.

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“Henry VIII” by William Shakespeare: On Politics and Literature

This was my first time reading this particular play, so I wasn’t sure what to expect. The introduction said that the play is a “pageant to be seen rather than a play to be read,” and the abundance of stage directions confirms this. Still, there are some interesting passages, especially in regard to the politics of that age.

The play essentially takes place as King Henry VIII was getting divorced from Katherine of Aragon so that he could marry Anne Boleyn (spelled Bullen in Shakespeare’s text). Toward the end of the play, Queen Anne gives birth to Elizabeth, the future queen, and this is where the text gets really interesting for me.

At the time that Shakespeare wrote this play, James I had succeeded Queen Elizabeth I and was reigning over England. In the final act, Shakespeare pays homage to the two monarchs that ruled during his time, a move that was politically savvy and ensured that he remained within the good graces of the ruler. He did this by crafting a prophesy, asserting that Elizabeth and James were both divinely ordained to do great things during their lifetimes. It is a long passage, but worth sharing.

Let me speak, sir,
For heaven now bids me; and the words I utter
Let none think flattery, for they’ll find ’em truth.
This royal infant–heaven still move about her!–
Though in her cradle, yet now promises
Upon this land a thousand thousand blessings,
Which time shall bring to ripeness: she shall be–
But few now living can behold that goodness–
A pattern to all princes living with her,
And all that shall succeed: Saba was never
More covetous of wisdom and fair virtue
Than this pure soul shall be: all princely graces,
That mould up such a mighty piece as this is,
With all the virtues that attend the good,
Shall still be doubled on her: truth shall nurse her,
Holy and heavenly thoughts still counsel her:
She shall be loved and fear’d: her own shall bless her;
Her foes shake like a field of beaten corn,
And hang their heads with sorrow: good grows with her:
In her days every man shall eat in safety,
Under his own vine, what he plants; and sing
The merry songs of peace to all his neighbours:
God shall be truly known; and those about her
From her shall read the perfect ways of honour,
And by those claim their greatness, not by blood.
Nor shall this peace sleep with her: but as when
The bird of wonder dies, the maiden phoenix,
Her ashes new create another heir,
As great in admiration as herself;
So shall she leave her blessedness to one,
When heaven shall call her from this cloud of darkness,
Who from the sacred ashes of her honour
Shall star-like rise, as great in fame as she was,
And so stand fix’d: peace, plenty, love, truth, terror,
That were the servants to this chosen infant,
Shall then be his, and like a vine grow to him:
Wherever the bright sun of heaven shall shine,
His honour and the greatness of his name
Shall be, and make new nations: he shall flourish,
And, like a mountain cedar, reach his branches
To all the plains about him: our children’s children
Shall see this, and bless heaven.

(Act V, scene v)

Shakespeare eloquently validates the rule of James I, while evoking the praise of Elizabeth, and at the same time, connects both of them to the idea of “divine rule,” that the King and Queen of England were God’s manifestation of power on the temporal plane.

I hope you found this passage interesting. If you are not a Shakespeare buff, you may want to watch instead of read this one. I also will look for a good version to stream online.

Thanks for stopping by, and try not to let the crazy politics of these times overwhelm you. Cheers!

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“Cymbeline” by William Shakespeare: Fear No More

My first ever exposure to Shakespeare was an excerpt from this play. As a kid, I somehow acquired a copy of a cheap paperback book called Immortal Poems of the English Language. I can still picture the cover. Anyway, the book included a Shakespeare “poem” entitled “Fear No More,” which I would discover many years later was actually just a passage from Cymbeline. But I loved this poem and read it over and over as a kid. So, having just re-read this play, it is that passage that I want to focus on.

Fear no more the heat o’ the sun,
Nor the furious winter’s rages;
Thou thy worldly task hast done,
Home art gone, and ta’en thy wages:
Golden lads and girls all must,
As chimney-sweepers, come to dust.

Fear no more the frown o’ the great;
Thou art past the tyrant’s stroke;
Care no more to clothe and eat;
To thee the reed is as the oak:
The sceptre, learning, physic, must
All follow this, and come to dust.

Fear no more the lightning flash,
Nor the all-dreaded thunder-stone;
Fear not slander, censure rash;
Thou hast finish’d joy and moan:
All lovers young, all lovers must
Consign to thee, and come to dust.

No exorciser harm thee!
Nor no witchcraft charm thee!
Ghost unlaid forbear thee!
Nothing ill come near thee!
Quiet consummation have;
And renowned be thy grave!

(Act IV: scene ii)

Just a quick note: the above passage is sung by two characters, Guiderius and Arviragus, and in the play they take turns with sections and lines, but I have omitted the names to preserve the flow that was in my old poetry book.

While these words are being spoken over a supposedly deceased person in the play, blessing the spirit as it is freed from the suffering of existence, it speaks volumes to the living. “Fear no more.” We spend so much of our lives worrying about things that in the end will amount to nothing. Death awaits all of us and is a part of all life. When we accept this fact, that we will “as chimney-sweepers, come to dust,” our priorities change. We recognize what is truly important in life, and can let go of the senseless worry and fear that burdens the existence of so many individuals, robbing them of the joy to be experienced during our brief sojourn.

Another aspect of this passage that resonates with me is in the second stanza: “The sceptre, learning, physic, must / All follow this, and come to dust.” It does not matter how much political power you amass, how educated you are, or how physically strong you might be; ultimately, you will die, just like everyone else. Death is the great equalizer.

While I focused on my favorite passage from this play, I want to close by saying that this is a really good play, and does not get the attention I feel it deserves. The story is great, the writing is superb, and it has a little bit of everything: history, tragedy, comedy, romance, and philosophy. If you have never read this play, I highly recommend you do so.

Thanks for stopping by, and remember, in these crazy times: Fear No More.

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Thoughts on “Pericles” by William Shakespeare

This was my first time reading this play, and I have mixed feelings about it. There are some things I liked, and a lot that just did not work for me. It is worth noting that in the Introduction to the text, G.B. Harrison points out that scholars believe that Shakespeare only wrote a small part of the play, and that the poor writing which dominates the text is from someone else.

Pericles is still retained in the canon of Shakespeare’s work, though there is little trace of his hand in any passage before Act III. With the third act the style changes and much of the remainder of the play may well b e Shakespeare’s writing, but if so it is Shakespeare far below his best. Most critics are agreed, however, that the prose scenes of the brothel (IV.ii and vi) are undoubtedly his. The earlier scenes of the play, especially I.iv and II.vi and v, are puerile melodrama and so badly written that they might almost be parodies of Elizabethan drama at its worst. The poor quality of these scenes may be partly due to the fact that the text of this play was a piracy.

This really sums up the play well. The early acts are cringe-worthy, where the writer resorted to using the same word at the end of couplet lines to create rhyme. It almost seems like the person who swiped Shakespeare’s sections and tried to fill in the blank acts really didn’t even care enough to try to create quality work.

The other thing that really bothered me about this play was the excessive use of a chorus as a narrator to drive the story. Every act begins with a chorus scene to advance the timeline and skip a bunch of events, and then some acts have other chorus scenes interspersed. The play covers a time span of what appears to be at least 16 years (possibly more). Aristotle must have rolled over in his grave when this was put forth.

I will say, though, that the last two acts were good, but not good enough to save the play as a whole. I liked the way that the play resolved itself, and the reunion of Pericles with his wife and daughter was touching.

During my reading, I took a few notes on some passages, but upon reviewing them, I don’t feel that they are worth expounding on. That said, to sum up, unless you are like me and just want to be able to say you read everything by Shakespeare, you can probably skip reading this one. Since time is limited and reading material vast, you’d be better off spending your time reading Hamlet again.

Thanks for stopping by, and have an amazing day.

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“Antony and Cleopatra” by William Shakespeare: A Critique on Women Leaders

It is believed that Antony and Cleopatra was written in 1607 or 1608, not long after the death of Queen Elizabeth I, who died March 24, 1603. In the play, Shakespeare paints a disparaging image of Cleopatra as the Queen of Egypt, implying that women are not suited to be rulers. It is possible that Shakespeare was reflecting on the reign of Elizabeth and criticizing her through the character of Cleopatra.

Early in the play, Caesar criticizes Antony, claiming he is womanly and therefore not a fit leader.

You may see, Lepidus, and henceforth know,
It is not Caesar’s natural vice to hate
Our great competitor: from Alexandria
This is the news: he fishes, drinks, and wastes
The lamps of night in revel; is not more man-like
Than Cleopatra; nor the queen of Ptolemy
More womanly than he; hardly gave audience, or
Vouchsafed to think he had partners: you shall find there
A man who is the abstract of all faults
That all men follow.

(Act I, scene iv)

When Antony is preparing to go to battle against Caesar, his friend Enobarbus speaks with Cleopatra, who plans on assisting with the war effort. Enobarbus makes it clear that he does not respect Cleopatra as a leader and views her as nothing more than a sexual plaything for Antony.

Cleopatra:

I will be even with thee, doubt it not.

 Enobarbus:

But why, why, why?

Cleopatra:

Thou hast forspoke my being in these wars,
And say’st it is not fit.

Enobarbus:

Well, is it, is it?

Cleopatra:

If not denounced against us, why should not we
Be there in person?

Enobarbus:

[Aside] Well, I could reply:
If we should serve with horse and mares together,
The horse were merely lost; the mares would bear
A soldier and his horse.

(Act III, scene vii)

In the same scene, Antony’s lieutenant Canidius tells one of the soldiers that they are “women’s men” after Antony places the naval forces under Cleopatra. The disdain that the military personnel feel at having to serve under a woman’s command is evident.

Soldier:

By Hercules, I think I am i’ the right.

Canidius:

Soldier, thou art: but his whole action grows
Not in the power on’t: so our leader’s led,
And we are women’s men.

(Act III, scene vii)

Finally, in the last scene, Cleopatra tells Caesar that the limitations of her gender are the causes of her frailty; in other words, the reason why she lacks the power to rule in the manner of Caesar, who represents male patriarchal leadership.

Sole sir o’ the world,
I cannot project mine own cause so well
To make it clear; but do confess I have
Been laden with like frailties which before
Have often shamed our sex.

 (Act V, scene ii)

Clearly, we have made vast strides toward gender equality since the days of Shakespeare, although we are not yet where we need to be. But I am grateful to be alive in a time where I have seen women leaders assuming their rightful place in the world. I look forward to the day when there are no longer male leaders or women leaders, but just leaders.

Thanks for stopping by.

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All’s Well That Ends Well: Shakespeare’s Expression of Machiavellian Ideology

This is a very strange play and does not fit into the structure of a typical Shakespearean comedy. Shakespeare’s comedies end in marriage (conversely, tragedies end in death), but this play, even though considered a comedy, does not end in marriage. In fact, the marriage happens at the beginning, and ends with the consummation of the marriage through trickery. On a very high level, Bertram is ordered by the King to marry Helena, which he does, but then decides to leave her and go off to war so as not to have to “officially” become her husband. Helena later tricks Bertram into having sex with her by pretending to be another woman that Bertram was wooing. Helena gets pregnant and Bertram finally has to acknowledge her as his wife.

Viewed from the post-MeToo perspective, this play does anything but end well. Bertram is a weasel, a liar, and a womanizer, and Helena would have been better off without him. I suppose you could present the play as satire, but I don’t think that is how Shakespeare intended it. Ultimately, marriage and the consummation of the marriage is the goal, even if this is accomplished via deception.

At the heart of this play is Machiavellian philosophy as expressed through The Prince.

Yet, I pray you:
But with the word the time will bring on summer,
When briers shall have leaves as well as thorns,
And be as sweet as sharp. We must away;
Our wagon is prepared, and time revives us:
All’s well that ends well; still the fine’s the crown;
Whate’er the course, the end is the renown.

(Act IV, scene iv)

Machiavelli wrote The Prince in 1513, and All’s Well That Ends Well was written sometime between 1598 and 1608, so Shakespeare would have known about Machiavelli’s famous quote: “The ends justify the means.” Shakespeare is paraphrasing Machiavelli in this quote, “the fine” meaning the finish or the crowning achievement. Additionally, the last line of the quote reemphasizes that whatever the course of events, it is the end result that matters most.

Overall, I did not hate this play, nor did I love it. It has some interesting aspects, particularly surrounding the character Parolles (hint – his name is a play on the French word “paroles” meaning “words”). But the play has problems, and personally, I could not find myself relating to any of the characters. They all seemed deeply flawed in their own ways. But maybe that is another message to be gained from this play, that we all have our issues and problems, and ultimately, it’s what we do in the end that matters.

Thanks for stopping by, and keep on reading cool stuff.

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“As You Like It” by William Shakespeare: All the World’s a Stage

This was my first time reading this play, although I did see it performed on stage once. The play is fun and whimsical, and pretty accessible. Anyway, I figured for this post I would focus on one passage, possibly the most well-known from this particular play.

DUKE SENIOR

Thou seest we are not all alone unhappy:
This wide and universal theatre
Presents more woeful pageants than the scene
Wherein we play in.

JAQUES

All the world’s a stage,
And all the men and women merely players:
They have their exits and their entrances;
And one man in his time plays many parts,
His acts being seven ages. At first the infant,
Mewling and puking in the nurse’s arms.
And then the whining school-boy, with his satchel
And shining morning face, creeping like snail
Unwillingly to school. And then the lover,
Sighing like furnace, with a woeful ballad
Made to his mistress’ eyebrow. Then a soldier,
Full of strange oaths and bearded like the pard,
Jealous in honour, sudden and quick in quarrel,
Seeking the bubble reputation
Even in the cannon’s mouth. And then the justice,
In fair round belly with good capon lined,
With eyes severe and beard of formal cut,
Full of wise saws and modern instances;
And so he plays his part. The sixth age shifts
Into the lean and slipper’d pantaloon,
With spectacles on nose and pouch on side,
His youthful hose, well saved, a world too wide
For his shrunk shank; and his big manly voice,
Turning again toward childish treble, pipes
And whistles in his sound. Last scene of all,
That ends this strange eventful history,
Is second childishness and mere oblivion,
Sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything.

(Act II; scene vii)

Let’s begin with the Duke’s lead in. He mentions “This wide and universal theatre” which in a way is almost a triple entendre. On one level, he is referring to Earth, the theatre on which we all live out our lives. But also, I would assert that a reference is being made to the cosmic play being acted out in the heavens. In Elizabethan England, the concept of the Great Chain of Being was a central tenet, basically asserting that what happens on Earth is a reflection of what is happening in the divine realm, and vice-versa. And finally, Shakespeare’s plays were performed at the Globe Theatre, and this appears to be an allusion to the Globe where the play would have been performed.

Now, Jaques’ response is a brilliant piece of writing, and if I wanted to, I could go line by line and tease out all the symbolism and metaphors, but instead, I want to hone this down and focus solely on the symbolism of the number seven. First off, if you are astute, you will have noticed that this passage occurs in Scene 7 of Act 2, something that I doubt is a coincidence. The next thing to note is that Jaques states “And one man in his time plays many parts, / His acts being seven ages.” He goes on to explain the seven stages of human development, which culminate in the final stage where man returns to “second childishness and mere oblivion,” implying the end of one cycle and the beginning of another.

Now, if we remember the concept of the Great Chain of Being, we are immediately reminded of God’s divine play in which he creates the world (or the Globe) in seven days, or in seven scenes. The correlation is being established between the seven stages of a human lifespan and the seven days of creation.

Finally, there is another level of significance for the number seven that I feel connects the divine with the mundane, and that is the known heavenly spheres, which were believed to have influence over the events on Earth. At the time Shakespeare was writing, there were seven known heavenly spheres: Sun, Moon, Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn. The movement of these seven spheres created what was thought of as the Music of the Spheres, a philosophical concept that was prevalent in Shakespeare’s time.

The musica universalis (literally universal music), also called music of the spheres or harmony of the spheres, is an ancient philosophical concept that regards proportions in the movements of celestial bodies—the Sun, Moon, and planets—as a form of music. This “music” is not thought to be audible, but rather a harmonic, mathematical or religious concept. The idea continued to appeal to scholars until the end of the Renaissance, influencing many kinds of scholars, including humanists.

(Source: Wikipedia)

I hope I didn’t go too far down the rabbit hole in my analysis. As I said earlier on, this really is a fun and accessible play, which is both witty and romantic. If you have not read it or seen it performed, I encourage you to do so. Thanks for stopping by, and have an amazing day.

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Sexual Metaphor in “Much Ado About Nothing” by William Shakespeare

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.

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