It’s one of Shakespeare’s best works, it’s a brilliant take on gender roles, and it’s also a sexual joke: in Shakespeare’s time, the word ‘Nothing’ was slang for female genitalia. The title of  ‘Much Ado About Nothing’ is a double entendre.

Depiction of the Church scene in Much Ado About Nothing by William Shakespeare, by Alfred W. Elmore.

The play was probably written in 1598 and 1599 when Shakespeare was mid-career, and is riddled with jokes and plays on words — though some of them have been shrouded by changing linguistics and semantics. Even one that is in the title remains hidden to most people — after all, why would “nothing” be dirty?

Much of this play revolves around writing secret messages, spying, and eavesdropping. People are constantly pretending to be others or being mistaken for other people, and are constantly tricked in one way or another. Intriguingly, much of the play’s action hinges upon the word. In Shakespeare’s time, “noting” (meaning gossip, rumour, and overhearing) was pronounced very similarly to “nothing”, and “noting” is what tricks the two main characters, Benedick and Beatrice, to confess their love for each other.

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These two near-homophones set the stage for a few interesting moments, such as:

Claudio: Benedick, didst thou note the daughter of Signor Leonato?

Benedick: I noted her not, but I looked on her.

However, there’s yet another entendre at work: “noting” also signifies musical notes:

Don Pedro: Nay pray thee, come;

Or if thou wilt hold longer argument,
Do it in notes.
Balthasar: Note this before my notes:
There’s not a note of mine that’s worth the noting.
Don Pedro: Why, these are very crotchets that he speaks –
Note notes, forsooth, and nothing!

But “noting” goes even for a third entendre — a sexual one. “Nothing”, or “an O-thing” (or “n othing” or “no thing”) was Elizabethan slang for “vagina”, evidently derived from the pun of a woman having “nothing” between her legs. Since much of the play focuses on couples and virginity is mentioned a few times, it gives even more emphasis that this is no coincidence.

This innuendo also sneaks up in Hamlet:

Hamlet: Lady, shall I lie in your lap?

Ophelia: No, my lord.

Hamlet: I mean, my head upon your lap?

Ophelia: Ay, my lord.

Hamlet: Do you think I meant country matters?

Ophelia: I think nothing, my lord.

Hamlet: That’s a fair thought to lie between maids’ legs.

Ophelia: What is, my lord?

Hamlet: Nothing.

Shakespeare was a master of words — there’s a reason why he’s considered the best English writer of all time. The level of depth and the different layers of meaning he gives to an apparently simple title just goes to show how amazing he was at this craft, and why he still fascinates us to this very day, more than four centuries after his plays were written. It also suggests that he liked dirty jokes, but that’s another story.