The war is over. Pedro Prince of Aragon, with his followers Benedick and Claudio, visits Leonato, Duke of Messina, father of Hero and uncle of Beatrice. Claudio falls in love with Hero and their marriage is agreed upon. Beatrice and Benedick despise love and engage in comic banter. The others plot to make them fall in love with each other, by a trick in which Benedick will overhear his friends talking of Beatrice's supposed secret love for him, and vice versa. Meanwhile Don John, the prince's misanthropic illegitimate brother, contrives a more malicious plot with the assistance of his follower Borachio: Claudio is led to believe that he has witnessed Hero in a compromising situation on the night before her wedding day - in fact it is her maid Margaret with Borachio. Claudio denounces Hero during the marriage ceremony. She faints and on the advice of the Friar, who is convinced of her innocence, Leonato announces that she is dead. Beatrice demands that Benedick should kill Claudio. The foolish constable Dogberry and his watchmen overhear Borachio boasting of his exploit and the plot is exposed. Claudio promises to make amends to Leonato: he is required to marry a cousin of Hero's in her place. When unmasked, she is revealed as Hero. Beatrice agrees to marry Benedick.
In 1576, de Vere visited Florence, a centre of art and learning at the time, home of Dante and Machiavelli. Florence was home to the monastery Santa Maria Novella, known for its perfumes and sweet oils. De Vere returned to England bearing perfumed gloves as gifts to the queen and others - perhaps purchased during his stopover in Florence. In the play, the Florentine Claudio gives "sweet gloves" to his betrothed Hero.
During his visit to Venice in January 1576, de Vere would have experienced the Venetian Carnival, where Venetians of all ranks and status donned masks and performed with one another in skits and masquerades. These performances may have influenced the use of masks in plays like Much Ado About Nothing.
In the play, Margaret mentions a sumptuous gown owned by the duchess of Milan. Milan was known as a centre of high fashion. On his return to London, de Vere joked that cobblers' wives in Milan were better dressed every working day than the Queen was on Christmas. During his travels to Italy, de Vere visited Milan three times.
The play contains a jealousy subplot masterminded by Don John - a miliary commander of the highest station. There are hints that the character may have been based on the Earl of Leicester, suggesting that Leicester may have masterminded a plot to arouse de Vere's jealousy in his relations with Anne Cecil.
Beatrice is the protagonist in the play. She is witty and combative, proud and reluctant to be courted. She is engaged in "a kind of merry war" with a vainglorious soldier Benedick, who claims to be a lifelong bachelor. The sportive barbs between Benedick and Beatrice were probably based on conversations between Anne Vavasour - a teenager who around 1580 had a pregnancy with de Vere that miscarried, and a second pregnancy that led to a son that she named Edward Veer. - and de Vere - a 30 year old nobleman with a wife and married daughter.
The first line in the play is:
BEATRICE: I pray you, is Signior Montando (=Lord Upward Thrust) returned from the wars or no?
Benedict writes verses for Beatrice, but says he can "find no other rhymne for lady but baby". Beatrice says that Benedick once lent his heart to her "And I gave him use for it. A double heart for his single one." Benedict and Beatrice refer to the labours of Hercules - who served penance for killing his own children. Beatrice responds: "I am not for him. Therefore, I will even take six pence ... and leads his apes into hell." In an old English ballad (The Maid and the Palmer), a maid leads an ape into hell by way of atoning for a dead illegitimate child. The play suggests that Beatrice not only conceived a stillborn child, but also was pregnant again. Halfway through, Beatrice gets sick. In response an attendant pricks Beatrice with a thistle, and gives the maid "distilled carduus benedictus", which doctors of the day administered to diagnose a pregnancy.
In the play, Dogberry is a constable that unearths a conspiracy concerning the deception of the jealous groom Claudio. In outlining the charges, Dogberry uses a mixed up numbering system:
DOGBERRY: Marry, sir, [the accused] have committed false report. Moreover, they have spoken untruths, secondarily they are slanders, sixth and lastly they have belied a lady, thirdly they have verified unjust things, and to conclude, they are lying knaves.
In 1580, de Vere had confessed to the Queen his Catholic leadings. He and some Catholic friends had discussed measures to return England to the Catholic fold with Henry Howard and Charles Arundell. Arundell replied with a document that accused de Vere of a number of things. In enumerating de Vere's vices, Arundell used a confused numbering system. In the play, de Vere used Dogberry to poke fund at Arundell.
In the play, Hero's betrothed Claudio unjustly accuses Hero of infidelity. In response, Hero is spirited into hiding and everyone is told that Claudio's cruelty has killed Hero, in a plot devised by Hero's ghostly father. Claudio eventually concludes that he was wrong. In the play, Claudio is given a full pardon without ever apologizing. (Yet sinn'd I not - but in mistaking.") The agent of evil is Don John. De Vere accused his wife Anne Cecil of infidelity. The play is a form of public acknowledgement, although de Vere does not admit error and puts the blame on the Earl of Leicester.
It was probably performed at court in 1583 under the name "A History of Ariodante and Orlando Furioso" - the source text for Much Ado About Nothing. The context would have been de Vere presenting his case of his recent life (Anne Vavasour's pregnancy, de Vere's flirtation with Catholicism, his plottings with Arundell and Howard, the Arundell libels).and arguing for a reinstatement at court. In Claudio's (de Vere's) refusal to admit error in relation to Hero (= Anne Cecil), and presenting the relationship between Benedict (=de Vere) and Beatrice (= Anne Vavasour), the play was probably perceived as an insult by the Queen.