Much Ado About… a concord dance around “nothing”

OK, so it’s called Much Ado About Nothing. A great fuss or trouble (“ado, n.; 2 and 3” OED Online. Oxford University Press, September 2014. Web. 15 October 2014.) about nothing.

But what is “nothing”?

And how important is it to the play?

Well, to answer the second question, let’s go back to the OED. Here are the meanings used in Shakespeare’s day:

A. n.
1. Not any (material or immaterial) thing; nought.
a. No part, share, or quantity of a thing; no aspect, evidence, or quality of a thing or person.
a. Not anything of importance, value; something or somebody of no importance.
b. of nothing: of no account, worthless.
4. That which is not any number or quantity; a figure or character representing this; zero.
a. That which has no existence or being; nothingness.
b. That which no longer exists; a person who has been extinguished or destroyed.
c. to nothing: state of a process of reduction, destruction, dissolution, etc.
6. As a count noun.
a. A thing of no importance, value, or concern; a non-existent thing; a trifling event.
b. A trivial remark.

But remember when we were discussing the bawdy first act of the play a while back? At that time, we made the connection from nothing to sex:

A stretch, I know, but here’s the path from nothing to some(sexual)thing: according to the Oxford English Dictionary, “nothing” has a primary meaning of “Not any (material or immaterial) thing; nought” (“nothing, n.; A.1.” OED Online). If you then examine “nought,” you’ll find meanings of “Not any quantity or number, zero” (“nought, n.; B.1.c.” OED Online), like an O, a hole, or a bodily orifice; or “Wickedness, evil, moral wrong; (also) promiscuity, indecency” (“nought, n.; B.3.b.” OED Online), which may be linked to the concept of that orifice.

So “nothing” could be nought (think of that sexual hole or orifice), no evidence of a thing, not anything of importance, zero, a person who has been destroyed, stage of dissolution, a trifling event, a trivial remark.

All of these fit the title.

But what about in the play? How important is “nothing” in this play (excepting the title) compared with the other plays in the Canon?

The tragicomedy/romance The Winter’s Tale uses the word more than any other play, 35 times in 26 speeches (Leontes goes on a nine-nothing rant early in the play). The tragedy King Lear also pounds the word into submission: 34 times in 29 speeches (over half the speeches and references come in the first act alone). “Nothing” appears 26 times in 21 speeches in the problem play All’s Well That Ends Well. And the history Richard II has 24 uses in 19 speeches. As a genre, the comedies don’t tend to use the term much. Most of the comedies have around a dozen usages; three tie for first with 20. Any guesses as to which pplay is one of the top comedies?

Yep, Much Ado About Nothing uses “nothing” 20 times in 17 speeches (both Twelfth Night and Love’s Labor’s Lost use the word 20 times as well [in 19 speeches each]; The Two Gentlemen of Verona comes close with 18 usages).

So “a thing of no importance” is pretty damned important in Much Ado, when you compare the play to the other comedies.

It’s worth noting. (spoiler alert!)

post-script: the figures above are courtesy of the database at OpenSource Shakespeare … oh, I do love me a good concordance!

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