The Arden Shakespeare Much Ado about Nothing (review)
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The Arden Shakespeare Much Ado about Nothing. Edited by Claire McEachern. London: Thomson Learning, 2006. Illus. Pp. xix + 345. $79.99 cloth, $13.99 paper.

If Claire McEachern's Much Ado about Nothing were judged only on the meticulously groomed text and its notes and glosses, it would be rated a stellar performance with a superb apparatus and consistently acute editorial choices. Unfortunately, the 144-page introduction is less assured, and the whole gives the impression of a mismatch between the labors of editing and those of analysis and exposition.

The notes are a pleasure to read; glosses are adept and concise, without windy disquisitions on alternative meanings. Many longer entries are fascinating (see, for example, the notes on "rotten orange" [4.1.30n] and "hang my bugle in an invisible baldrick" [1.1.226n]). I admired the gently witty way she ended her learned discussion about a minor inconsistency in the 1600 Quarto (does Conrade spy on Don John inside or outside Leonato's house?): "Shakespeare is not overly concerned with such specifics. Getting things slightly wrong is a theme of this play" (1.3.57n). When notes bear on sources, hers are invariably brief and relevant. The difference between editorial and Quarto stage directions is clearly marked, and the treatment of cruxes is pithy and at times exemplary.

Graceful concision also marks the notes on performance and theatrical history, which often use a combination of approaches and sources to highlight issues at stake in a given interpretive choice. This quality is especially evident in notes to the eavesdropping scenes of Act 2 and the tomb scene of Act 5. For the most part, longer quotations from early modern documents work splendidly. The real achievement of this edition is how McEachern deftly deploys a combination of linguistic and literary analysis, theater history, and textual commentary to address the specific problem before her, yet she manages to give the reader a sense of the whole play as alive and ever changing, with many intriguing possibilities for interpretation, capably set out within the frame she has created. [End Page 466]

The introduction seems to have been written under a different star. Some minor points are explored in detail, while vital ones are treated summarily or ignored completely. One senses the rumbles of present-day theoretical battles largely as they affect issues of textual editing and "unediting" among the new New Bibliographers and their detractors. The section on critical history is surprisingly brief, with only one paragraph devoted to the contemporary scene (meaning post–World War II). McEachern comments that "feminist criticism has struck the richest vein," but overall her treatment of this field is confined to shorthand remarks, such as "the play's portrait of patriarchy outrages and encourages in equal measure" (125). While the cupboard is bare in the section on criticism, the pages on sources are overly dense with detail.

Passages on gendered identity and social power are similarly lopsided, minimizing female power and continually stressing exchanges between men. McEachern starts out promisingly by saying that the play edges very close to tragedy in its display of male sexual paranoia couched in the language of cuckoldry. Several pages are devoted to horns and cuckolds, but the section opens with a factual error, stating "there are no actual cuckolds in Shakespeare's plays" (43), overlooking Albany in King Lear, King Henry in 2 Henry VI, and Saturninus in Titus Andronicus. In the section on "witting" and "unwitting" cuckolds, McEachern contructs an insupportable analogy between the "knowledge" of unchastity and "knowledge" in a far more positive sense. She uses the contrasting figures of the cuckold and the wittol (the horned husband who knows his wife is unfaithful and doesn't act on it) to argue that Beatrice and Benedick begin the play as insider-wits but end up as "cuckolds" and "wittols" (48–50). Because they are seen as overproud, Beatrice and Benedick spur their friends to change them from knowing wits to the equivalent of unknowing "cuckolds" they can mock at will, or more happily, into lovers who are "wittols, or complaisant in their own deception" (49). The intensely gendered connotations of "cuckold" and...