Much Ado about Nothing is one of William Shakespeare's best known comedies, though its origins remain somewhat mysterious. Written around 1598, the play was first published around 1600, most likely after its initial performances. The origins of the complicated love story between the chaste Hero and the virtuous Claudio can be traced to several possible earlier stories, including some that bear similar names and plot devices. The duel of wit between comic heroes Benedict and Beatrice, by contrast, is believed to be the invention of Shakespeare, and is often revered as his best romantic writing.
One possible origin of the central plot in Much Ado about Nothing is the epic poem The Faerie Queene, by English poet Edmund Spenser. In a small section of the second part of the poem, the hero Guyon encounters a young man called Phedon, who tells the knight a tragic tale. Like Claudius in Much Ado about Nothing, Phedon is convinced by a traitorous friend that his intended wife, Claribell, is unfaithful. To fully dupe Phedon, the friend disguises himself and seduces a maid in Claribell's bedroom, first convincing Phedon to watch the rooms for signs of his bride. The Faerie Queen was published in 1596, giving Shakespeare ample time to run across it as a possible material source.
A second potential origin story is found in an Italian novel by author Matteo Bandello. Published in 1554, the story takes place in Messina, the same town in which Much Ado about Nothing is set. In addition to containing a plot that follows the Hero and Claudio story nearly point for point, Bandello's novel also contain several characters with similar names, including Lionato and Don Pedro.
A third similar tale exists, this time in an epic poem, Orlando Furioso by Italian poet Ludovico Ariosto. Published nearly a century before Shakespeare's play, the poem contains an episode in which a lover is once again misled by a deceiving seduction on his mistress' balcony. Although Ariosto's version differs significantly from Shakespeare's central plot, it remains possible that Shakespeare had access to both Orlando Furioso and Bandello's tales, and may have used them to create Much Ado about Nothing.
Though the story of Hero and Claudio seems to clearly owe its origins to an earlier source, the most fascinating debate over the history of Much Ado about Nothing revolves around the writing process of the play. The sections of the play that deal with Hero and Claudio are written in a style quite similar to Shakespeare's earlier comedies, leading some historians to believe that the central plot was written much earlier. The comic lovers of the play, Beatrice and Benedict, may have been written entirely independently of the main plot, then inserted into the Hero/Claudio story as comic foils. Although there is little factual evidence to support this theory, it remains a tantalizing mystery for Shakespearean scholars.