If there’s one thing I took away from my four years at theater school, it’s that plays are meant to be seen, not read. And that’s doubly true for the works of William Shakespeare, which can seem impossibly archaic on the page but are vital and hilarious when brought to life by actors who can actually make the language sound like dialogue. Far from stuffy and academic, Shakespeare’s plays were written as bawdy, rousing entertainment for the masses. It’s particularly ironic that Shakespeare has become so associated with snobby elitism when he also created the genre that’s most likely to be scoffed at today: the romantic comedy.
In fact, no one has influenced the modern rom-com genre more than William Shakespeare. Though Romeo & Juliet is a tragedy, it created a “star-crossed lovers” setup that has fueled romantic comedies from Roman Holiday to Pretty Woman. Twelfth Night is the inspiration for any rom-com that involves a high-stakes hidden identity, like While You Were Sleeping, Maid In Manhattan, and How To Lose A Guy In 10 Days. Rosalind from As You Like It set the template for the scrappy, self-confident heroines of Working Girl and My Best Friend’s Wedding. And A Midsummer Night’s Dream is the urtext for any romance brimming with madcap wackiness, like Bringing Up Baby, Overboard, and Moonstruck.
But Shakespeare’s single most influential romantic comedy is Much Ado About Nothing, the iconic story of two wise and witty former lovers who claim they can’t stand one another, even though all they do is obsess about each other. Too proud to admit that the “merry war” betwixt them is covering up some very real feelings, Beatrice and Benedick need an outside push to get them to lower their pride and realize they’re perfect for one another.
From Elizabeth and Mr. Darcy in Pride And Prejudice to Sam and Diane in Cheers, so many of our most beloved pop culture pairings owe a debt to Bea and Ben. Each new decade of filmmaking offers dozens of riffs on Shakespeare’s timeless enemies-to-lovers template, from The Philadelphia Story and Pillow Talk to When Harry Met Sally, Something’s Gotta Give, and Love & Basketball. Even 10 Things I Hate About You—which pulls its plot from Shakespeare’s The Taming Of The Shrew—is really more of a Much Ado update. And when brought to life correctly, the original play can still feel as fresh, passionate, and laugh-out-loud funny as any of the contemporary rom-coms it inspired.
I initially fell in love with Much Ado at a 2007 Wild West-themed production at St. Louis’ wonderful outdoor Shakespeare Festival. Plenty, however, probably first encountered the play thanks to Kenneth Branagh’s 1993 big screen hit, which starred himself as Benedick and his then-wife Emma Thompson as Beatrice. They were an erudite “it couple” of the day, and their starry adaptation hit theaters just a few months after Thompson scooped up a Best Actress Oscar for Howards End.
By that point, the Irish-born Branagh had already branded himself as one of our foremost interpreters of Shakespeare (a reputation he solidified in 1996 with his epic four-hour take on Hamlet). After starting with the Royal Shakespeare Company and then founding the Renaissance Theatre Company, Branagh first brought the playwright to the big screen with his 1989 take on Henry V, which earned him Oscar nominations for Best Actor and Best Director before he had even turned 30. Emboldened by that success, Branagh decided to make a Shakespearean comedy as accessible as the history play he adapted. Much Ado was a natural choice. He’d been enchanted by the play ever since starring in a 1988 RTC production directed by Judi Dench. She’d later joke, “Ken Branagh, he stole all my ideas for the film.”
Much Ado was shot on location at a villa in sun-dappled Tuscany, and though it’s a period piece, Branagh wanted the costumes to be “rather vague” to “reflect how relevant and contemporary Shakespeare is today.” He sought to shake the cobwebs off The Bard, adding more action and streamlining the text without losing its poeticism. Branagh cast big-name American actors like Keanu Reeves and Denzel Washington alongside classically trained British ones to “make the language feel and sound different and unstuffy.” And he gave his adaptation an overall sense of vivacious sensuality.
Branagh’s Much Ado opens with returning war heroes pumping their fists atop charging horses. Soon enough, everyone is stripping naked to freshen up for the battle of love that’s to follow the wartime victory. It’s a surprising yet fitting intro for a comedy in which physical gags and innuendo abound. (Much Ado’s title is either a play on “noting,” as in eavesdropping, or a double entendre based on the fact that “nothing” was Elizabethan slang for “vagina.”) As Branagh put it, “For a whole generation of kids, some grateful teacher, with a gasp of relief, will be able to say, ‘Here are girls with cleavages and boys with tight trousers, class. You will now shut up for an hour and a half and pay attention!’”
Branagh makes for a rather hammy Benedick; his true stroke of genius was casting Thompson as Beatrice. Her sparkling, steely portrayal joins the canon of all-time-great Shakespeare performances. The best productions of Much Ado recognize there’s a touch of sadness beneath Beatrice and Benedick’s witty exteriors. They publicly boast about how much they hate marriage partially because they’re afraid it might not happen for them. (As Benedick admits in one of the play’s funniest lines, “When I said I would die a bachelor, I did not think I should live till I were married.”) Thompson’s performance encapsulates all of that, hinting at the vulnerabilities beneath Beatrice’s flinty exterior.
Beyond its crowd-pleasing central couple, however, Much Ado is a hard nut to crack. Unlike Midsummer, which is consistent in its silliness, or Twelfth Night, which is masterful in its handling of tone, Much Ado swings erratically from broad comedy to stark drama. While Beatrice and Benedick are the play’s most memorable characters, the plot centers around young lovers Claudio (Robert Sean Leonard) and Hero (Kate Beckinsale, in her first film role). Their love-at-first sight match is arranged by the magnanimous Don Pedro, Prince Of Aragon (Denzel Washington, subtly excellent), and then nearly undone by the Prince’s dastardly half-brother Don John (Keanu Reeves), who tricks Claudio into thinking Hero has been unfaithful. (Though Reeves got a lot of flack for his performance at the time, the real problem is that he’s playing one of Shakespeare’s least interesting villains.)
While Much Ado starts as a silly vacation romp, it suddenly becomes a dark melodrama in which Hero is publicly humiliated at the altar and a kindly friar convinces her that the best course of action is to fake her own death until her innocence can be proven. Despite the impressive modernity of Beatrice and Benedick’s banter, the Hero/Claudio story is so tied to Elizabethan ideals about virginity that it’s difficult to make that part of the play relatable to a modern audience—especially when Hero’s happy ending involves reuniting with the fiancé who cruelly shamed her.
And yet those thorny issues are also a big part of what makes Much Ado so fascinating. Though Beatrice and Benedick’s courtship is sometimes described as a subplot that wound up overshadowing the rest of the play, I’d argue the Hero/Claudio storyline exists to advance Beatrice and Benedick’s arcs. When Hero is publicly shamed, even her own father, Leonato (Richard Briers), turns against her. It’s only Beatrice who remains steadfast in her loyalty, uttering her famous lament against Claudio, “O God, that I were a man! I would eat his heart in the market-place.” And while Benedick initially tries to stay neutral, Beatrice’s conviction eventually brings him to side with Hero, too.
As Tom Hiddleston put it in an A.V. Club interview about why he loves the play so much, “There’s one extraordinary aspect… which is almost unique in all of Shakespeare, which is the man, Benedick, takes the side of the women in blind faith.” Benedick believes Beatrice over the word of his two best friends, going so far as to challenge Claudio in Hero’s defense. If Benedick gets more stage time than Beatrice (he has by far the most lines in the play), it’s because he has further to go in his arc than she does in hers. Benedick finally proves worthy of Beatrice only after he rejects the toxicity of the men around him. Over 400 years ago, Shakespeare wrote a love story about the dangers of boys’ club mentalities and the importance of believing women.
My favorite version of Much Ado About Nothing gets Benedick’s transformation just right. In Josie Rourke’s 2011 West End production starring David Tennant and Catherine Tate (which is available to rent on the Digital Theatre platform), Tennant gives a performance as Benedick every bit the equal of Thompson’s Beatrice. Tennant has an almost unrivaled gift for making Shakespearean language sound like naturalistic dialogue without losing its musicality. And in addition to being absolutely hilarious in the play’s goofier moments (the scene where Benedick is tricked into falling in love is one of the funniest things I’ve ever seen on stage), Tennant also understands the nobler side of Benedick, a solider who refuses to be complicit in the cavalier cruelty of his brothers in arms.
Part of the joy of theater as an art form is in seeing what different productions bring out of a text as dense and malleable as Much Ado. And movie lovers can replicate that experience thanks to Joss Whedon’s 2013 adaptation, which he shot in his own home over the course of 12 days while on a break from editing The Avengers. Like Branagh, Whedon wanted to make the play feel fresh and accessible. He sets his version in contemporary California with a black and white aesthetic that also ties it to the screwball comedies of the 1930s and ’40s (many of which were inspired by Much Ado in the first place).
Whedon’s endearingly lo-fi take was another critical success that helped introduce Much Ado to a new generation. Personally, it’s not an all-time favorite of mine, mostly because I don’t think the cast of regular Whedonverse players are particularly adept at handling the Shakespearean language. (Amy Acker fairs okay as Beatrice, but Alexis Denisof just can’t make Benedick spring to life.) Yet Whedon’s Much Ado still offers plenty of examples of how directors can bring their own unique take to centuries-old material. In a small but genius adaptation choice, Whedon uses an innocuous exchange about a wedding dress to create a layered moment for waiting woman Margaret (Ashley Johnson), who’s been unwittingly used in the scheme to discredit Hero.
Where you can most directly see the impact of adaptation choice is in the two films’ wildly divergent takes on Dogberry, the buffoonish local constable who shows up halfway through the story and eventually helps save the day. In Branagh’s version, Michael Keaton leans into the kind of ridiculously over-the-top characterization that so often makes the character seem like he’s accidentally wandered in from another play. In Whedon’s version, however, Nathan Fillion brilliantly underplays Dogberry’s bumbling incompetence, turning a character that’s usually a drag into a comedic highlight. For that alone, the Whedon Much Ado deserves props.
One stage production that captures the depths that can be mined from Much Ado is director Kenny Leon’s 2019 Shakespeare in the Park version, which is set in 2020 Georgia and features an all-Black cast. Led by Danielle Brooks as Beatrice and Grantham Coleman as Benedick, the play is as funny and romantic as ever. Yet without altering the text, Leon also reflects the specificity of the Black experience. The “war” the men are returning from is some sort of militant social justice protest movement—an idea that’s only become more relevant since 2019. (The production was recorded for PBS’ Great Performances series and will air again this August.)
At the risk of sounding like a theater major cliché, I have to admit that I tend to prefer my Shakespeare on stage rather than adapted for film. Leon’s briskly paced production captures the rhythmic propulsion of Shakespeare’s language, which sometimes gets lost in a more visual medium like film. Plus there’s an x-factor in the way the performers can feed off the energy of an audience. In the PBS recording, Beatrice’s “I would eat his heart in the market-place” speech earns a spontaneous burst of applause—a reminder of just how timeless Shakespeare can be.
Ever since Much Ado first premiered, audiences have been clamoring to see it told and retold. A dedication in the 1632 Second Folio notes, “Let but Beatrice / And Benedick be seene, loe in a trice, the Cockpit Galleries, Boxes, all are full.” The reason we keep revisiting the play is the same reason we keep adapting its tropes for modern rom-coms. With Much Ado, Shakespeare tapped into something universal about love and human nature, highlighting our foibles with a perceptive yet sympathetic eye.
Even during their happy ending, Beatrice and Benedick can’t quite give up their quarreling. Rather than publicly profess their love, they’ll only concede to be marrying the other out of pity. “Thou and I are too wise to woo peaceably,” Benedick notes earlier in the play. Whether their courtship is wisdom or folly is the eternal question—one that will continue to keep Shakespeare’s work alive for decades to come.
Next time: Edward Norton hoped religion and rom-coms were a match made in heaven in his directorial debut, Keeping The Faith.