Yesterday, we took a look at nothing. At least the meanings and number of uses of the word “nothing” in Much Ado About Nothing. And “nothing” was pretty interesting.
But here’s the thing: there’s more to it than “nothing.”
Hear me out.
In Shakespeare’s day, pronunciations of some words were a little different than they are today. “Nothing” is one of those words. Back then, the pronunciation closer to “noting.”
The word appears twice in Much Ado About Nothing. While this doesn’t seem like much, “noting” appears in no other comedy in the Canon (and only once each in the tragedies Romeo and Juliet and Antony and Cleopatra) Here, it’s used once by the musician Balthasar, who says in the calm before the gulling of Benedick, “There’s not a note of mine that’s worth the noting” (II.iii.53); and again by Friar Francis, who says in the aftermath of the wedding,
And given way unto this course of fortune,
By noting of the lady.
In both cases, the meaning seems to come from the second verb form of “note”: “To take notice of; to consider or study carefully; to pay attention to; to mark” (“note, v.2.; 5a” OED Online. Oxford University Press, September 2014. Web. 17 October 2014.).
If you take the root word, “note,” and its variances (noted, notes, etc.) in both noun and verb forms, then once again, Much Ado has more uses (11 in eight speeches) than any other comedy, history, problem play or tragedy (only the tragicomedy/romance Cymbeline has more–17–though Love’s Labor’s Lost, Antony and Cleopatra, and The Winter’s Tale come close with ten apiece).
The uses are almost equally divided by part of speech: five verbs, six nouns. The verbs use almost exclusively the same meaning as the “noting” forms above (to take notice of), the only exception being Don Pedro’s meaning of “to indicate” (“note, v.2.; 2c” OED Online): “Note notes, forsooth, and nothing” (II.iii.55; emphasis mine).
The nouns are more varied
- half of them refer to Balthasar’s musical notes (II.iii.52 [twice] and 53)
- one as “notice, attention” (III.iii.29; “note, n.2; 11c” OED Online) in Dogberry’s advice to the watch
- one as what Don Pedro interprets as a “token or indication of” love (III.ii.50; “note, n.2; 3a” OED Online)
- one as “a tune” (II.iii.55; “note, n.2; 6a” OED Online) in the “Note notes” referenced above. Note (no pun intended) that this “notes” can also refer to Balthasar’s “occupation or work” (“note, n.1; 2a” OED Online) as a singer.
And what do all of these “notes” have in common?
They are all references to take notice of something, to point out something, or something to witness or hear.
And why is this important?
Think of the three turning points in the play–Benedick’s and Beatrice’s gulling scenes, and the off-stage witnessing by Claudio and Pedro of Hero’s wedding eve assignation. All three turn on the concept of interpreting as true what is presented, a falsehood. If Benedick and Beatrice had not believed what they heard, we might not get our (somewhat) happy ending, and if Claudio had not believed what he heard and saw (and what we–by misdirection of the playwright himself–do NOT hear or see), we’d have no climax in the dramatic structure of the play.
“Noting” is not for nothing.