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Much Ado About Nothing Act Summaries

Read summaries of all the acts in the play to help you pinpoint key events, and gain insights for your own work.

Act One

The play opens with Leonato, Governor of Messina, receiving news of a military victory. Messina is a city in Sicily, (now part of Italy but then ruled by Spain). Very quickly these matters become secondary to the main interest of the play, which is romantic comedy, with its own struggles and victories. Young Claudio has distinguished himself in battle, as he will, eventually, in love. We learn “there is a kind of merry war betwixt Signor Benedick” and Beatrice, Leonato’s niece. This is shown as soon as Benedick arrives. He and Beatrice duel with words, taking our attention away from the arrival of Don Pedro, victor of the battle. With Don John comes John the Bastard, the play’s villain.

Claudio, who arrived with Don Pedro, tells Benedick that he wishes to marry Hero, Leonato’s daughter, much to Benedick’s disgust- he declares: “I will live a bachelor,” and exits. Don Pedro and Claudio now speak in verse, not so common in the play, and usually less entertaining than the witty prose that prevails. Don Pedro promises to woo Hero on Claudio’s behalf. Thus the main plot of tricks and disguises is set in motion, as Antonio, tells his brother, Leonato, that it is Don Pedro, the Prince, who loves Hero. Leonato goes to give his daughter the wrong news.

Don John boasts of being a plain-dealing villain, in conversation with Conrade. Borachio tells them the true version of the Claudio/Hero romance, and Don John vows to exploit it. His bitter comment – that Claudio “hath all the glory of my overthrow,” – confirms the Bastard’s description of himself!

Act Two

Beatrice delivers several withering remarks on the male sex; her uncle, Leonato, despairs of ever marrying her off! In the masked dance that follows, characters imitate others, or pretend not to be who they really are. Beatrice greatly enjoys insulting Benedick, while pretending not to know who he is. Don John takes the opportunity to tell Claudio that is Don Pedro who loves Hero. Claudio is convinced that “the prince woos for himself.” Scarred by his encounter with Beatrice, Benedick leaves as soon as he sees her – “I cannot endure my Lady Tongue.” Beatrice hints there might once have been some understanding between herself and Benedick.

Don Pedro reveals that he has successfully wooed Hero on Claudio’s behalf. They are betrothed, and Beatrice wryly remarks she’s the only one left unwed. Once she’s gone, this gives Don Pedro the idea of bringing her and Benedick “into a mountain of affection.” He compares it to Hercules’ “impossible” labours! Hero and Leonato pledge their assistance.

Borachio suggests to Don John a better way of foiling the marriage. He will get Margaret, Hero’s gentlewoman, to imitate Hero, while he imitates Claudio. Claudio will apparently see Hero mocking him by calling her lover – Borachio - by Claudio’s name. Hero will seem to be “a contaminated stale” - a prostitute.

Benedick muses on love, talking directly to the audience. Unlike Claudio, who he sees as fickle, he won’t love “till all graces be in one woman.” He hides to eavesdrop on Claudio. Don Pedro and Leonato – but they spot him immediately! Benedick is not impressed when he hears Balthasar singing that “Men were deceivers ever.” Don Pedro begins his scheme to trick Benedick by speaking loudly of how much Beatrice loves him. Benedick takes the bait, and, when she calls him to dinner, sees signs that she loves him!

Act Three

Hero begins the parallel plot, to trick Beatrice into thinking “Benedick is sick in love with [her].” Beatrice hears Hero and Ursula and is persuaded.

Don Pedro and Claudio mock the much-changed Benedick, who claims he has the toothache! Things get much more serious with the entry of Don John, who claims he has proof of Hero’s infidelity. He invites Don Pedro and Claudio to “see her chamber window entered, even the night before her wedding day.” If proven, they vow to disgrace her publicly.

For the first time we meet characters who aren’t “noble” in the shape of Dogberry and the Watch. They overhear Conrade and Borachio discussing the “villainy” they have undertaken for Don John. Borachio admits to having “wooed Margaret...by the name of Hero,” while observed by Claudio. The Watch arrest them.

Hero prepares for her wedding. Margaret, her maid, teases her with sexual innuendo. Meanwhile, the Watch inform, in a very rambling way, Leonato, of the arrests they’ve made. Leonato does not yet understand their significance.

Act Four

The scene is set for Hero’s wedding to Claudio, but the groom refuses to accept “this rotten orange”, accusing her of being seen with a man the previous night. Hero faints and her father wishes she were dead! Friar Francis, who was to perform the wedding, believes her innocent. Benedick is suspicious of “John the Bastard.” The Friar suggests they act as if Hero were dead, to draw out Claudio’s real feelings for her.

Beatrice and Benedick are left alone together, and they admit their mutual love. She asks him to prove it by killing Claudio. She would do it herself if she were a man. Persuaded by the strength of her feelings, he agrees to challenge his friend.

The Watch, led by the chatty Dogberry, question Borachio and Conrade. The Sexton tells them that Hero has died from the slander, and they are to be brought before Leonato.

Act Five

Leonato laments his daughter’s “death” and accuses Claudio, saying: “Thou hast killed my child.” A serious Benedick enters the scene and challenges Claudio to a duel. He tells Don Pedro that his bastard brother has fled. Conrade and Borachio are brought before the Prince. And the truth comes out. It was Borachio courting Margaret that they saw, not Hero. As a gesture to make ammends, Leonato orders Claudio to marry his unnamed and mysterious niece.

Margaret is innocent of the uses to which she’s been put, and we see her advising Benedick on romantic language, with strong sexual overtones. Beatrice and Benedick speak frankly to one another, when Ursula arrives with the news of Don John’s treachery.

Tributes are read at Hero’s “grave.” Beatrice and Benedick obtain Leonato’s consent to their marriage. At a solemn ceremony Claudio accepts the mysterious niece, only to discover he has chosen Hero – alive after all! Beatrice and Benedick realise that trick that has been played upon them, but they accept each other anyway. The play ends with a dance and the news that Don John has been captured.