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Much Ado About Nothing, by William Shakespeare, Limited Editions Club (1939)

The comedy Much Ado About Nothing, by William Shakespeare, written in 1598 or 1599, is generally considered one of his best as it “combines elements of robust hilarity with more serious meditations on honour, shame, and court politics” (see here). In the preface to the play (in the prospectus to this edition), German philosopher Hermann Ulrici (1806-1884) further describes the tenants underlying the surface level humor in the play:

…as in most other comedies, a love-story forms the centre  of interest, around which the whole plot revolves. And yet love itself is not the object, whose comic paralysis, by the dialectic of irony, the poet here proposes to exhibit. He rather seems to have drawn his ground-idea from a contemplation of the contrasts which human life presents between the reality of outward objects, and the perceptions of the inward subject — between that which the world really is, and that which it appears to those who yet live in it, and have experience of it. Love, as the ordinary occasion of mischances and complications, which, although un themselves insignificant and not uncommon, appear in a very different light to those immediately concerned in them, is merely the medium which the poet employs for projecting those contrasts on a luminous field.

This “contrast between objective reality and the subjective apprehension of things” is a solid foundation for a story of any type, but in the hands of Shakespeare the contrast is sharpened by the use of deception and mistaken identity leading to a hilarious yet serious “great fuss (“much ado”)” being “made of something which is insignificant (“nothing”).

Like all of Shakespeare’s plays, the characters come to life and are utilized perfectly to achieve the intent of the play. Ulrici says of the characters:

…there is, therefore, no superfluous part in the present any more than in any other piece. Each character is conceived and developed in exact agreement with the fundamental idea, and while all are shaped and modified by the living organization, of which they are integral members, they nevertheless retain their individuality, and an independent movement of their own.

I lost my notes of the play so can spare you the more typical lengthy set of quotes that I like to use to highlight Shakespeare’s genius. One that I recall, however, is Claudio saying:

Friendship is constant in all other things,
Save in the Office and affaires of love:
Therefore all hearts in love use their owne tongues.
Let everie eye negotiate for it selfe,
And trust no Agent: for beautie is a witch,
Against whose charmes, faith melteth into blood:

I suppose it is just another way of saying that all is fair in love and war, but how wonderfully stated!  Even deep friendship is no match for the spell of beauty! Unlike most of Shakespeare’s plays, Much Ado About Nothing is mostly prose. Captivating prose indeed, always thought-inducing, such as when Leonato says:

If hee doe feare God, a must necessarilie keepe peace, if hee breake the peace, hee ought to enter into a quarrell with feare and trembling.

Much Ado About Nothing is part of the marvelous 1939/1940 thirty seven volume The Plays of William Shakespeare by the Limited Editions Club (LEC), which was designed by the great Bruce Rogers. Like all editions in this set, it uses the text of the First Folio, with Quarto insertions, edited and amended where obscure by Herbert Farjeon. The type is an 18 point close facsimile of Janson, made by the Lanston Monotype Company, with the italic used being a creation of the Monotype Company since Bruce Rogers did not like the Janson 18 point italic; italic small capitals were made by re-cutting the Italic capitals of the Monotype Garamond Bold in a special size and with slight alterations of a few of the characters with a close new type face. It is bound with gilt tops and uncut edges in backs of American linen, with the titles stamped in gold on the spine. The cover design is based on a decorative wall design in a house that that Shakespeare was thought to have stayed at frequently. A different artist was used for each of the 37 volumes in this set. For Much Ado About Nothing German American artist and book illustrator Fritz Kredel provided illustrations from pen line and a wash in color. The illustrations were reproduced in Paris, the black outline being done by the collotype process in the shop of Georges Duval, the color being laid on by water-colors through stencils in the atelier of Jean Saudé. In the Monthly Letter (ML), Kredel mentions exploring a multitude of possibilities for illustrating this play, ultimately “conceiving the idea of making a real theatre with stage, curtain and audience.” He goes on to explain:

One-fourth of the space was allowed for the audience. Also, being of secondary importance, it must not become uninteresting. The even dark tone in which the audience is held, in contrast with the full light on the stage, makes the audience appear of less importance.  I chose the Baroque, the grand period of the theatre, and at the same time the period when Shakespeare’s plays became popular on the Continent. This plan once established, the more difficult part of my work was done. All the rest was pleasure, although the definitive form was established with great care and conscientiousness.

The ML has much praise for Kredel (a student of the great Rudolf Koch), who was no stranger to illustrating books for the Limited Editions Club having illustrated twenty-one editions for them between 1931 and 1972.

It is most characteristic of Herr Kredel’s work, that he is able to suggest an entire picture with a few strokes. A line here, a line there; your eye sees details which are really not in front of you. Your eye quickly tires of a picture in which every detail is depicted. You look at the picture once, you’ve seen it all, you feel no desire to see it again.

But when a picture is merely suggestive, as in the case of Kredel’s pictures, your eye finds pleasure in looking again and again; for the mind is excited and becomes imaginative.

The ML says that “understatement in illustration” is a “charming quality.”  Of Kredel’s work “It seems to us that each line suggests other lines to the eye of the beholder; that each small dash of color puts a multitude of colors in the eyes of the beholder.” While this is not Kredel’s best work for the LEC, I do enjoy it. I like the approach and his execution of it. One can almost place themselves in with the audience, looking up at the action in front of me. There is not currently any near-fine or better copies of this work that I can see on the secondary market, but they do come up, and usually for a quite fair price (under $100). Well worth tracking down!

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Pictures of the Edition

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Much Ado About Nothing, Limited Editions Club, Covers and Spine
Much Ado About Nothing, Limited Editions Club, Series Title Page
Much Ado About Nothing, Limited Editions Club, Frontispiece and Title Page
Much Ado About Nothing, Limited Editions Club, Macro of Title Page
Much Ado About Nothing, Limited Editions Club, Sample Text #1
Much Ado About Nothing, Limited Editions Club, Macro of Sample Text #1
Much Ado About Nothing, Limited Editions Club, Sample Illustration #1 with Text
Much Ado About Nothing, Limited Editions Club, Sample Text #2
Much Ado About Nothing, Limited Editions Club, Sample Text #3
Much Ado About Nothing, Limited Editions Club, Sample Illustration #4 with Text
Much Ado About Nothing, Limited Editions Club, Colophon
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