"You must not, sir, mistake my niece. There is a kind of merry war betwixt Signor Benedick and her; they never meet but there's a skirmish of wit between them." — Leonato, Much Ado About Nothing
A forerunner to the Romantic Comedy genre by William Shakespeare, the plot of Much Ado About Nothing centers on two couples: Hero and Claudio, whom the villain Don John spends the play trying to drive apart, and Beatrice and Benedick, whom most of the other characters spend the play trying to bring together.The most well-known adaptation is probably the 1993 film featuring Kenneth Branagh and Emma Thompson as Benedick and Beatrice. In 2011, on vacation from filming The Avengers, Joss Whedon shot a shoestring-budget adaptation of his own in his house, which premiered at the 2012 Toronto International Film Festival and was released in June of 2013 to much critical praise.Benedick is the source of the word "benedict," for a man who marries after a long bachelorhood.
Tropes from the original play:
Actor Allusion: The part of Dogberry was written for Will Kemp, the actor who played Bottom in A Midsummer Night's Dream, which adds a whole new level to the "I am an ass" rant.
Badass Boast: "O that I were a man, I would eat his heart in the market place."
Bride and Switch: Inverted. Claudio has been led to believe that Hero has died of grief over his accusations of sluttery, and to atone he has promised to marry her cousin sight unseen. But it turns out that it really is Hero.
Captain Obvious: Benedick helpfully tells us that Claudio rejecting Hero and calling her a slut "looks not like a nuptial". In his defense, he has just that second walked in on it.
Card-Carrying Villain: Don John even admits by way of his dialogue that he's the villain of the play, because that's the role in which he has been cast.
Don John: "It must not be denied but I am a plain-dealing villain. If I had my mouth, I would bite; if I had my liberty, I would do my liking: in the meantime let me be that I am and seek not to alter me."
Cool Big Sis: Beatrice to Hero, though they're actually cousins.
Double Entendre: Even in the title, which is possibly a sextuple entendre. As noted under Get Thee to a Nunnery, "nothing" was Elizabethan slang for the female genitalia, and noting (a homophone with nothing in the Elizabethan period) was Elizabethan slang for sex. Noting was also used to refer to singing (especially sight-reading). Shakespeare also used noting as a synonym for noticing in multiple passages (1.1.131-132 and 4.1.154-157), and the meaning of a note as a written message is referred to at various points in the play as well.
The Dragon: Borachio, whose antics with Hero's lady-in-waiting give credence to Don John's claims of Hero's infidelity.
Expy: Friar Francis is Friar Laurence all over again. He's the one who suggests that a girl faking her own death will make everything better (although his Zany Scheme fares better than that of his counterpart).
Foreshadowing: Benedick and Beatrice both have lines that indicate their affections for each other well before the Zany Scheme: Benedick says that Beatrice "exceeds [Hero] as much in beauty as the first of May doth the last of December," and Beatrice confides to someone she thinks is a stranger (actually Benedick in disguise) that she wishes Benedick had "boarded" her.
For the Evulz: Don John is pretty one-dimensional for a Shakespeare villain. Biding his time to re-consolidate his power would probably have been a better move than petty vindictiveness.
Geeky Turn-On: It's all but outright stated that Benedick and Beatrice fell so hard for each other at least partly because they're the only people who can keep up with their verbal fencing matches.
Get Thee to a Nunnery: The title itself has an obsoleted Double Entendre, "nothing" being a sixteenth-century euphemism for "lady parts". And "noting" being a sixteenth-century euphemism for "doing the deed". So it's "much ado about noting" as well...
Heroic BSOD: All over the place after the slandering ("Hath no man's dagger here a point for me?")
Hidden Depths: Dogberry and his troop, again. A reluctant watch they may be, but they have little hesitation in arresting Borachio and Conrade. Dogberry may be an idiot, but once he knows something is going on, he is dogged, when it comes to finding out what.
Important Haircut: After they convince Benedick that Beatrice is in love with him, Don Pedro and Claudio run into Benedick and notice that he has shaved. They start teasing him about his sudden clean-shaven appearance, seeing this as proof that their ploy to get him to fall for Beatrice has worked. Not used in many productions, but used to great effect in the Joss Whedon film version.
I Need to Go Iron My Dog: Benedick trying to escape a conversation with Beatrice, by means of a series of insane quests. Later in the same scene, and even more obvious, Leonato sends Beatrice to "look to those things I told you of" to get her out of an awkward conversation with Don Pedro.
Mood Whiplash: Goes from zany romantic comedy to drama in a matter of seconds when Claudio jilts Hero at the altar, and then bounces about from sweet romance (Beatrice and Benedick) to comedy (Dogberry's interrogations) to tragedy (Claudio mourning what he thinks is Hero's death) until everything is finally resolved.
Only Sane Man: Beatrice and Benedick are the only ones who don't believe the incredibly flimsy accusations against Hero. They really do make a great team!
Playing Cyrano: Not only does the Prince provide the words for Claudio to woo Hero, the Prince actually does the wooing—pretending to be Claudio while talking to Hero at a masquerade. Naturally, the villainous Don John convinces Claudio that the Prince has actually fallen in love with, and become engaged to, Hero. Unusually, this plot twist lasts only one scene, until the next time Claudio sees the Prince—and the Prince assures him that he did, indeed, woo Hero on Claudio's behalf. (In fact, since the Prince gives this reassurance in Hero's presence, it's likely that she knew all along that (a) she was really talking to the Prince, and (b) he was pretending to be Claudio as a favor.)
Plot Hole: It's mentioned in Act I that Antonio has a son, yet in 5.1, Leonato speaks of Antonio's daughter as the latter's only child and heir in a crucial plot point. It's debated whether it's a legit mistake by Shakespeare or an intended mistake for Leonato.
Police Are Useless: Interestingly played. Dogberry and his crew are useless, but purely by accident they manage to save the day.
Pun-Based Title: Believe it or not, among the many possible meanings of the word "nothing" in Shakespeare's day, the word was sometimes a reference to female genitalia. Making this seemingly harmless title possibly an, erm, quite colorful one, to say the least. "Nothing/Noting" can also refer to music (songs play a decently large part, and the play ends by striking up the pipers), eavesdropping (the heart of both the matchmaking plot and the evil plot), actual physical notes (the play opens with a letter, and right at the end Benedick and Beatrice are shown their own love letters to stop their playful bickering), and noticing or understanding (which the Friar, Benedick, and Beatrice are good at, thank God). It is also important to note that, according to the script, the audience never sees the pivot point in the play: the observation of Borachio and Margaret (dressed as Hero) that leads to the accusations of adultery. It happens right in the middle and everything else grows from it, but it is not actually shown. So the play literally revolves around nothing. Basically, the title contains a Hurricane of Puns in one word.
Spirited Young Lady: An early example: Beatrice is independent, intelligent and has quite the rapier wit.
Taking the Veil: It is suggested that Hero can do this, to escape the slander.
Tempting Fate: Near the climax, Don Pedro defends his and Claudio's actions at the first wedding by insisting their accusations were "full of proof". Cue the guards bring Borachio to them and confessing what really happened.
The Trickster: One can certainly interpret Borachio this way. Notice he's the one who comes up with all the evil ideas, yet he's willing to be second fiddle to Don John, and is quick to claim he's only acting on his orders.
Don Pedro and Claudio were the ones doing it, but under false information. Then immediately after they are told that Hero has died and don't really care. It's their turn to get called out on for this, by both Hero's father and Benedick.
You Meddling Kids: "What your wisdoms could not discover, these shallow fools have brought to light."
Zany Scheme: The plan to convince Beatrice and Benedick that they're in love certainly qualifies; arguably, having Don Pedro court Hero for Claudio does as well.
And faking Hero's death, just because... just because.
Green-Eyed Monster: Other than envy towards his half-brother Don Pedro and towards Claudio being in Don Pedro's favor, it seems that Don John may had or have an interest in Hero, Claudio's love interest, possibly adding to another reason for Don John's attempts breaking apart Claudio and Hero.
Happy Dance: In celebration of Beatrice's supposed "love" for him, Benedick splashes around in the pond.
Insult Backfire: Dogberry is called an ass by one of the conspirators. He seems very pleased and flattered to be addressed so.
The Oner: The tracking shot at the end of the film doesn't add anything to the plot, but it sure is festive. Lasting a good 2 and a half minutes, the camera zooms between all of the principal characters as they sing and dance, finally ending on an aerial shot of the entire villa.
Race Lift: Denzel Washington is cast as the prince. The blatant anachronism is ignored by all and justified by nothing—other than perhaps the Rule of Cool.
To be fair there's also quite a number of the other actors who are clearly of predominantly Celtic or Northern European ancestry, but are playing characters who are (ethnically and culturally) Italian and Spanish.
Armor-Piercing Slap: Benedick delivers one to Claudio, challenging him to a duel to defend Hero's honor.
Attending Your Own Funeral: Hero watches the funeral set up to fool Claudio. In his commentary, Whedon explains that this was added as an attempt to make it more palatable that Hero would forgive him, as she gets to see how truly repentant he is for what he did to her.
Call Forward: Boracchio is seen seducing and making out with Margaret in the background of quite a few scenes, which would explain why she agreed to have sex with him in Hero's clothes later. Also, when Don John tells Claudio that Don Pedro is wooing Hero for himself, Claudio immediately believes him and is extremely distraught until Don Pedro sets him straight. This scene establishes exactly how gullible and impetuous Claudio is and makes his later betrayal of Hero more believable.
Deliberately Monochrome: Mostly because shooting in B&W considerably decreases the time required to light and set up a shot, which is useful when you only have 12 days for rehearsals and principal photography.
At least one critic commented that shooting in black and white gave the movie the feel of such classic relationship comedies as His Girl Friday and Adam's Rib, which suited the performances of Alexis Denisoff and Amy Acker who demonstrated a Tracy/Hepburn level of on-screen chemistry.
Dream Team: The cast is clearly something of a real life example for Joss Whedon.
Flashback: The text implies a past love between Benedick and Beatrice (Beatrice says, "Marry, once before he won [my heart] of me with false dice"). Flashback scenes show that she and Benedick once were a couple, only to fall apart. This helps explain why they constantly engage in a "skirmish of wit" whenever they meet, while professing their intentions never to be married. It also makes their inevitable Love Epiphany more believable.
Gender Flip: Conrad, one of Don John's lackeys, is a woman named Konrade.
The Sexton is also played by a woman.
Glasses Pull: Dogberry and Verges are constantly putting on sunglasses under the mistaken belief that it makes them look cool.
Handshake Substitute: When they have proof that Benedick's finally realized his feelings for Beatrice(they see him gazing lovingly at her photo) Don Pedro and Claudio fist-bump each other.
Hard-Drinking Party Girl: It seems like everyone is slightly drunk for the whole movie. This could cross over into Truth in Television; Joss Whedon and several of the cast members have all implied that every time you see a character with a drink in their hand, the liquid in the glass isn't exactly water, if you know what we mean.
Highly-Visible Ninja: Benedick dresses as one at the masquerade ball, which was chosen because Denisof had already shaved for the film's second half. It also may serve as Foreshadowing for his attempts to eavesdrop on the Zany Scheme.
I Need a Freaking Drink: When Claudio and Hero are about to get married, Benedick sees that Claudio is angry and tries to subtly pacify him. When it becomes apparent that that isn't happening, Benedict heads straight to the bar for a drink. Whedon explains on the commentary that this was to justify his not speaking up as the argument gets nastier.
Kick the Dog: After Don John ruins Hero at the wedding, he hangs back to steal the cupcakes meant for the reception.
Setting Update: Moved to the modern day, with the implication (by costuming) that the soldiers are spies (or, as at least one reviewer suggested, that the war the men are returning from was a corporate war or, god forbid, a mafia war—legitimate corporate executives don't generally haul around their defeated opposite number in handcuffs). This allows for clever use of a smart phone as a way to relay action, but also serves to highlight the nasty sexual politics of the original play. This being Joss Whedon, one could suspect that was partly the point.
Spit Take: Hero does one when Don Pedro suggests that Benedick and Beatrice would make a good match.
Tropes from the Berlioz operatic adaptation:
Adaptational Heroism: Claudio does not make the rash and unfair decision to shame Hero on flimsy evidence in this version; the wedding goes as planned.
Beta Couple: In this version, it is unambiguously Claudio and Hero, to Benedick and Beatrice's "Alpha couple".
Compressed Adaptation: This adaptation is focussed only on the development of Benedick and Beatrice's relationship.
Lighter and Softer: The dark and dramatic subplot involving the slander of Hero is omitted.