The most influential writer in all of English literature, William Shakespeare was born in 1564 to a successful middle-class glove-maker in Stratford-upon-Avon, England. Shakespeare attended grammar school, but his formal education proceeded no further. In 1582 he married an older woman, Anne Hathaway, and had three children with her. Around 1590 he left his family behind and traveled to London to work as an actor and playwright. Public and critical acclaim quickly followed, and Shakespeare eventually became the most popular playwright in England and part-owner of the Globe Theater. His career bridged the reigns of Elizabeth I (ruled 1558–1603) and James I (ruled 1603–1625), and he was a favorite of both monarchs. Indeed, James granted Shakespeare’s company the greatest possible compliment by bestowing upon its members the title of King’s Men. Wealthy and renowned, Shakespeare retired to Stratford and died in 1616 at the age of fifty-two. At the time of Shakespeare’s death, literary luminaries such as Ben Jonson hailed his works as timeless.
Shakespeare’s works were collected and printed in various editions in the century following his death, and by the early eighteenth century his reputation as the greatest poet ever to write in English was well established. The unprecedented admiration garnered by his works led to a fierce curiosity about Shakespeare’s life, but the dearth of biographical information has left many details of Shakespeare’s personal history shrouded in mystery. Some people have concluded from this fact and from Shakespeare’s modest education that Shakespeare’s plays were actually written by someone else—Francis Bacon and the Earl of Oxford are the two most popular candidates—but the support for this claim is overwhelmingly circumstantial, and the theory is not taken seriously by many scholars.
In the absence of credible evidence to the contrary, Shakespeare must be viewed as the author of the thirty-seven plays and 154 sonnets that bear his name. The legacy of this body of work is immense. A number of Shakespeare’s plays seem to have transcended even the category of brilliance, becoming so influential as to affect profoundly the course of Western literature and culture ever after.
Much Ado About Nothing is generally considered one of Shakespeare’s best comedies, because it combines elements of robust hilarity with more serious meditations on honor, shame, and court politics. It was probably written in 1598 and 1599, as Shakespeare was approaching the middle of his career. Like As You Like It and Twelfth Night, Much Ado About Nothing, though interspersed with darker concerns, is a joyful comedy that ends with multiple marriages and no deaths.
Although one of the features of Shakespearean comedy is that no one dies, it would be a mistake to assume that death is absent from this genre. Often, Shakespeare’s comedies are more accepting of death than his tragedies, treating death as part of the natural cycle of life. Much Ado About Nothing is no exception, and Hero’s pretending to die of humiliation makes death more vividly present here than in any of Shakespeare’s other comedies. The crisis that lies at the center of Much Ado About Nothing troubles many readers and viewers, since the play creates a very strong sense of anger, betrayal, hatred, grief, and despair among the main characters. Although the crisis ends quickly, Much Ado About Nothing sometimes seems only steps away from becoming a tragedy.
Indeed, the line between tragedy and comedy is sometimes fuzzy. Many critics have noted that the plot of Much Ado About Nothing shares significant elements with that of Romeo and Juliet. Much Ado About Nothing also shares many features with Shakespeare’s late play The Winter’s Tale, which most critics assign to a different genre—that of problem comedy or romance. Like Hermione in The Winter’s Tale, Hero stages a false death only to come back to life once her beloved has repented.
Although the young lovers Hero and Claudio provide the main impetus for the plot, the courtship between the older, wiser lovers Benedick and Beatrice is what makes Much Ado About Nothing so memorable. Benedick and Beatrice argue with delightful wit, and Shakespeare develops their journey from antagonism to sincere love and affection with a rich sense of humor and compassion. Since Beatrice and Benedick have a history behind them that adds weight to their relationship, they are older and more mature than the typical lovers in Shakespeare’s comedies, though their unhealthy competitiveness reveals them to be childish novices when it comes to love.