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RITING in 1640, a full genera
tion after its first appearance on
Nothing” in these words :-
“Let but Beatrice
full.” The succeeding twenty years had other matters in hand than the seeing of plays, and this bril
liant comedy would have given mortal offence to Puritan sensibilities and convictions. It fared hardly better at the hands of the theatre-loving public of the age of the Restoration. It was as brilliant as Congreve's “The Way of the World,” which registers the high-water mark of the playwrights art in that gay, pleasure-loving period, and in play of wit it outshines Congreve's masterpiece ; but taste had changed, the play of intrigue had come in, a fuller and freer social life had put fresh and highly entertaining material in the dramatists' hands, and nothing saved “Much Ado About Nothing” from the fate which overtook most of the earlier comedies save one of those surgical operations so often performed by the skilful stage mechanics of the later seventeenth and of the eighteenth century, in the vain endeavour to make over a work of genius to the pattern beloved by a more artificial age. Sir W. Davenant combined the play with “ Measure for Measure” in “ The Law Against Lovers,” and a contemporary writer expressed the optimistic opinion that the two had “ wit enough in them to make one good play.”
Modern readers and playgoers have not been slow to feel the extraordinary interest of this comedy of wit and to recognise its peculiarly happy expression of the mind of Shakespeare in his most prosperous period, — the brief and brilliant years between his apprenticeship and his resolute grappling with the most appalling problems of character and experience, which bore fruit in the tragedies.
“ Much Ado About Nothing” was entered in the “Stationers' Register” with “ As You Like It,” “ Henry the Fifth,” and “Every Man in His Humour fourth day of August, 1600. In the same year the play was published in the only Quarto Edition, with this record on the title-page: “Much Ado About | Nothing. I As it hath been sundries times publikely I acted by the right honourable, the Lord | Chamberlain his servants.
Written by William Shakespeare. | London | Printed by
The records of the title-page and of the “Stationers' Register” furnish all the knowledge we possess regarding the date of the play. That it had been played before it was printed is evidenced not only by the statement on the title-page of the Quarto, but by its publication in that form. The Quarto publications, being surreptitious, followed public interest; they did not “ create a market for the plays; they made use of a market already created. The Quarto of “Much Ado About Nothing ” has what Dr. Furness has happily called “ a tidy little mystery of its own,” which need not be discussed here; it is, however, a part of the record of the play that there is but one Quarto Edition and that the editors of the Folio Edition reprinted the text with only a few omissions and unimportant changes. No lines are to be found in the Folio which are not found in the Quarto. Mr. Dyce is of opinion that when the Folio differs from the Quarto it is mostly “ for the worse," and Dr. Furness suggests that the copy of the Quarto which Heminge and Condell had before them in preparing the text of the Folio had been used as a prompt-book and contained fuller stage directions than appeared in the original form of the play.
There is no decisive evidence touching the exact date of the writing of the play, and the attempts to identify Beatrice's reference to “musty victuals” in the opening scene with the complaints of bad provisions furnished by contractors in the campaign of the Earl of Essex in Ireland in 1599, to trace a connection between the reference