Much like everything in Shakespeare, the meaning behind his words has multiple layers. The meaning behind the title of Much Ado About Nothing is no exception, especially when you look at the word “nothing”. You wouldn’t think there could be so much meaning behind a word that literally means…well…nothing or no thing or no nonspecific object. Okay, it’s really hard to actually define nothing. But, in this instance, nothing packs a lot of meaning into one little word. We have the literal meaning, the play on words (because homonyms) and, of course, the double entendre. It’s pretty clear that this title was carefully chosen to incorporate as much of the play’s events as possible. Let’s look deeper.
The Literal Meaning
Much Ado About Nothing on the most basic level means a big hullabaloo over nothing. The truth is that Hero didn’t actually do anything, and yet everyone freaks out about it. In fact, every single time people get worked up it’s over misunderstandings, outright lies, and tricks. Claudio, for example, immediately becomes a pouty baby when he thinks Don Pedro stole Hero for himself. Why does he think this? Because sneaky Don John lied to him. Of course, Claudio wasn’t the only one who misunderstood the situation. Hero’s father and Antonio prep her to say yes to the prince because a random servant we never see misheard the crazy plot. Then there’s Beatrice and Benedick. Neither of them actually expressed their love until they were falsely told that the other secretly loved them. Every single inciting incident is actually nothing. It’s made up by someone. Nothing actually happens.
During Shakespeare’s time, they would have been speaking what is called Middle English. It’s a lot like modern English, but some spellings, pronunciations, and meanings may have been different. In the case of nothing, it would have sounded almost exactly like “noting”. Noting didn’t just mean to notice or pay particular attention to, it also meant overhearing. There is so much overhearing (and mishearing) going on in this play, it’s hard to know where to start. Antonio’s servant was eavesdropping on Don Pedro and misheard his plan. Claudio pretends to be Benedick so he can get the scoop from Don John. Benedick also pretends to be someone else at the masquerade, so he can hear what Beatrice has to say. Benedick and Beatrice both overhear the others discussing their secret love. Dogberry’s men overhear the Hero scheme. And in general, everybody is talking about everybody else’s business most of the time. This brings an even deeper understanding of the events that take place.
It just wouldn’t be Shakespeare if we didn’t have a double entendre. Due to the nature of female private parts, it was often said that women have nothing between their legs. Nothing quickly became slang for lady parts. When you get right down to it, the whole series of shenanigans is about what happened (or didn’t happen) regarding Hero’s intimate areas. And since I’m running out of synonyms for female genitalia, I’ll just leave it there.