William Shakespeare’s play Much Ado About Nothing has remained a popular comedy with audiences since it was first performed, probably in the autumn of 1598. Its underlying story has appeared in many places, but the parallel plot involving Beatrice and Benedick seems original. As a result it has been painted by a range of British artists, and was well-covered in engravings for Boydell’s Shakespeare Gallery.
The Prince of Aragon, Don Pedro, has just defeated his illegitimate half-brother Don John, although the two have already been reconciled. The Prince is about to visit Leonato, Governor of Messina, his daughter Hero and niece Beatrice. In the Prince’s party are Count Claudio and his friend Benedick, who has become the butt of Beatrice’s wickedly derogatory humour.
Thomas Francis Dicksee’s portrait of Beatrice from 1883 refers to this in the quoted lines:
“I wonder that you will still be talking
Signior Benedick, nobody marks you.”
When Leonato welcomes Don Pedro, Beatrice and Benedick engage in bitingly witty repartee. Claudio tells Benedick that he intends to woo Hero, so Don Pedro promises to disguise himself as Claudio at the masked ball that evening, to gain Leonato’s approval for Claudio’s suit. However, Don John hears of this plan and intends to block it.
Leonato is then told by his brother that Don Pedro wishes to marry his daughter Hero, and Hero is advised to accept any proposal from Don Pedro.
At the masked ball, Don Pedro, disguised as Claudio, speaks to Hero as he promised. Beatrice pretends not to recognise Benedick when she tells him scathingly of Benedick’s faults. Don John tells Claudio, whom he pretends is Benedick, that Don Pedro is wooing Hero for his own benefit. Claudio believes him, and laments that Don Pedro has betrayed him. Beatrice manages to offend Benedick, who scorns her and leaves as soon as she returns.
Don Pedro reassures Claudio that he has kept his word, and that he has obtained Leonato’s approval for Claudio’s marriage to Hero. Once Beatrice has left, Don Pedro decides to trick her and Benedick to fall in love, with the help of Leonato, Claudio and Hero, in the coming week before Claudio and Hero get married.
Borachio, one of Don John’s followers, promises him that he’ll put a stop to Claudio and Hero’s marriage by making Hero appear unfaithful the night before their wedding. He intends doing that by getting Claudio to see him courting Hero’s gentlewoman, who will be disguised as Hero. For this, Don John promises him a thousand ducats.
Benedick hides in the orchard so he can overhear Don Pedro, Leonato and Claudio talking, although they’re aware of his presence and pretend to be unaware of him. The three confirm a story that Beatrice has fallen in love with Benedick. They then leave to plan the same trick on Beatrice, after getting her to invite Benedick to dine with her.
Hero gets Beatrice to overhear her telling her gentlewoman that Benedick is deeply in love with Beatrice, which induces Beatrice to return Benedick’s advances.
This engraving of Matthew William Peters’ painting of Hero, Ursula and Beatrice from 1790 was included in the prints accompanying Boydell’s Shakespeare Gallery.
John E Sutcliffe’s watercolour of Beatrice Overhears Hero and Ursula was painted over a century later, in 1904.
The day before the wedding, Benedick goes to meet Leonato, while Don John tells Claudio and Don Pedro of Hero’s unfaithfulness and promises to demonstrate it that night by showing them another man entering her chamber.
The duty watch for the night are briefed comically by Constable Dogberry. After he leaves, they overhear Borachio boasting about the plot to Don John’s companion Conrad, and how he has just deceived Claudio and Don Pedro into believing that Hero was unfaithful. As a result, the watch arrests both of them.
The following morning, before the wedding, Hero and Beatrice are dressing with their gentlewomen. Dogberry visits Leonato to tell him of the arrests the previous evening, but the Governor doesn’t have time to listen to the constable’s rambling and sends him away to deal with the pair himself.
When Friar Francis starts the marriage service, Claudio immediately hands his bride back to her father, telling him of what he had seen the previous night, and causing Hero to faint.
This engraving of William Hamilton’s painting of Hero Fainting in Church from 1789 shows this climax, and was included in the prints accompanying Boydell’s Shakespeare Gallery.
Alfred Elmore shows the same scene in a different composition in this Church Scene in Much Ado About Nothing from 1846.
Marcus Stone’s undated Claudio, Deceived by Don John, Accuses Hero returns to a composition similar to Hamilton’s.
Although Leonato is convinced of Hero’s guilt, the Friar still believes that she’s innocent, and persuades Leonato and Benedick to hide her, and announce her death.
Beatrice and Benedick admit their love for one another, and she challenges him to avenge those who slandered Hero. For that, Benedick is to challenge Claudio to a duel.
Max Cowper’s Kill Claudio from 1905 shows Beatrice challenging Benedick to duel with Claudio. These are portraits of two famous players of the day, Herbert Beerbohm Tree as Benedick and Winifred Emery as Beatrice, in a production from that year.
Borachio and Conrad are questioned ineptly by Constable Dogberry and others, but despite that they realise the truth, that Don John had falsely accused the apparently dead Hero. They take their prisoners to Leonato to inform him.
Robert Smirke’s undated painting of The Examination of Conrade and Borachio shows this taking place. This was apparently among those exhibited in the Boydell Shakespeare Gallery.
Leonato accuses Claudio of causing Hero’s death, but Claudio refuses to duel with him. Benedick then challenges Claudio to his duel, then leaves. When Borachio and Conrad are brought in front of Don Pedro and Claudio, the latter are shocked to hear how they’ve been deceived. Borachio then confesses to Leonato his remorse for his role in Hero’s death. Leonato requires Claudio to restore Hero’s reputation in Messina, to take an epitaph to her tomb that evening, and the following morning to marry another woman in Hero’s place.
Later that night Claudio reads his epitaph for Hero at Leonato’s family tomb, and they all go to prepare for the wedding in the morning.
The following day, Friar Francis agrees to marry Beatrice and Benedick in the same ceremony. Claudio vows to marry a veiled woman presented to him, thinking she is Leonato’s niece, until she reveals her face. Meanwhile, Beatrice and Benedick have been talking, and are beginning to realise how they were each tricked into loving the other. When Benedick’s love sonnet to Beatrice, and a letter from her to him, are revealed, they agree to marry. As they start dancing to music, they learn of Don John’s capture. Finally Benedick urges Don Pedro to postpone his decision on his half-brother’s punishment until tomorrow.
Wikipedia on Shakespeare’s play.
Full text at Project Gutenberg.
Michael Dobson and Stanley Wells (eds) (2015) The Oxford Companion to Shakespeare, 2nd edn, Oxford UP. ISBN 978 0 19 870873 5.