In 1586, the Temple Church in London became the site of a public, momentous theological debate. In the previous year, the Master of the Temple and Anglican theologian Richard Hooker preached, “I doubt not but God was merciful to save thousands of our fathers living in popish superstition, inasmuch as they sinned ignorantly.” Hooker agreed with the dominant Protestant belief that saved believers in Christ are justified by faith, but he was responding to his parishioners’ concerns that their deceased Roman Catholic family members were not saved because they had a different understanding of salvific justification, commonly characterized as a justification by good works. As Hooker preached in the mornings, Walter Travers, a Puritan reader (lecturer) of theology at the Temple, preached in the afternoons from the same pulpit. Travers argued that people must believe in justification by faith alone in order to be justified at all. In other words, according to Travers, to be saved by faith, people must have a correct faith.

For four Sundays in March 1586, the debate was on. In the mornings, Hooker took as his text Habakkuk 2:4, “The just shall live by his faith” and argued that while Christians must always to strive to understand the truth, their salvation does not depend upon their perfect understanding:

They be not all faithless that are either weak in assenting to the truth or stiff in maintaining things any way opposite to the truth of Christian doctrine. But as many as hold the foundation which is precious, although they hold it but weakly and as it were by a slender thread, although they frame many base and unsuitable things upon it, things that cannot abide the trial of the fire, yet shall they pass the fiery trial and be saved, who indeed have builded themselves upon the rock which is the foundation of the Church.[1]

In his later work Of the Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity (Book 1, 1594), Hooker takes further the implication in his sermon that a saving faith does not require a correct understanding of, or even the intellectual ability to understand, justification by faith:

Dangerous it were for the feeble brain of man to wade far into the doings of the Most High; whom although to know be life, and joy to make mention of his name; yet our soundest knowledge is to know that we know him not as indeed he is, neither can know him: and our safest eloquence concerning him is our silence, when we confess without confession that his glory is inexplicable, his greatness above our capacity and reach. He is above, and we upon earth; therefore it behoveth our words to be wary and few.[2]


Hooker’s assertion here, “our soundest knowledge is to know that we know him not as indeed he is,” has as one of its sources 1 Corinthians 2:11, “For what man knoweth the things of a man, save the spirit of a man, which is in him? even so the things of God knoweth no man, but the Spirit of God.”[3] Travers preached his replies in the afternoon, which were largely reiterations of the views he expressed the previous year. The back-and-forth continued until Archbishop John Whitgift prevented Travers’s last reply.[4]

The Temple Church in London is situated in the district of the Middle and Inner Temples, two sites of Elizabethan city government and education in law, so the people crowding the church for the debate included theologians, law students, scholars, and city officials. Identifying Hooker and Travers with their ecclesiastical commitments, the 17th Century Anglican church historian Thomas Fuller wrote, “Here the Pulpit spake pure Canterbury in the morning, and Geneva in the afternoon.”[5] The debate has since come to be known as the Battle of the Pulpit. While it had spectacle appeal for the audience, the disagreement had immediate and practical importance. All of England’s current Protestants had Roman Catholic ancestors and relatives. Hooker wanted his congregants to “be of good comfort, we have to do with a merciful God, rather to make the best of that little which we hold well; and not with a captious sophister who gathers the worst out of everything wherein we err.”[6]

We do not know if William Shakespeare was present at the Temple Church for any of these dueling sermons, although one Shakespearean scholar has suggested an allusion to the debate outcome in Julius Caesar.[7] Yet Shakespeare was certainly familiar with the culture of the Temple and the Inns of Court. After all, the first recorded performance of Twelfth Night was at the Middle Temple Hall rather than at one of London’s theatres, and the first English tragedy, Gorboduc, was written by the Inns of Court scholars Thomas Norton and Thomas Sackville. In fact, at the same time Norton was writing the first three acts of Gorboduc, he was also working on the first English translation of John Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion. Shakespeare almost certainly knew Gorboduc, a play derived from the same chronicle source as and with definite similarities to King Lear.[8] As this suggests, Elizabethan religious culture was never as separated from theatrical production as the Elizabethan anti-theatricalists had wished.[9]

This essay equates the feeble brains of whom Hooker writes with the “shallow fools” of Shakespeare’s comedies, at least some of them. Hooker warns us that we all have “feeble brains” for knowing “the doings of the Most High.” Like Hooker echoing 1 Corinthians 2:11 above, Bottom (one of Shakespeare’s most famous clown characters) in A Midsummer Night’s Dream notably echoes verse 9 from the same chapter: “But man is but a patched fool if he will offer to say what methought I had. The eye of man hath not heard, the ear of man hath not seen, man’s hand is not able to taste, his tongue to conceive, nor his heart to report what my dream was” (4.1.207-212). Bottom’s synesthesia shows that there are wonders in this world beyond sensation. In fact, Shakespeare often uses the wisdom of fools to reveal depths of understanding that supposedly wiser characters have not discovered.[10] In Much Ado about Nothing, Shakespeare creates good-hearted, apparently dim-witted Christian characters, Dogberry and Verges, who are regarded by their fellow characters as foolish (and have usually been regarded as such by audiences and scholars as well), but who are nevertheless effective in administering grace to a broken community in Messina.

In Act 2, scene 2 of Much Ado about Nothing, the villain Don John recruits the henchman Borachio to sully the virtuous reputation of an innocent young woman, Hero, betrothed to become Claudio’s wife. In Act 3, scene 3, Dogberry’s nightwatchmen overhear Borachio explaining to Conrade the slander against Hero, and they arrest both conspirators. By Act 5, scene 1, Borachio is repentant and confesses the crime to Claudio and Don Pedro, the prince:

I have deceived your very eyes: what your wisdoms could not discover, these shallow fools have brought to light [emphasis mine] who in the night overheard me confessing to this man how Don John your brother incensed me to slander Lady Hero, how you were brought to the orchard and saw me court Margaret in Hero’s garments, how you disgraced her when you should marry her. (5.1.222-230)[11]


Naseeb Shaheen, in his book Biblical References in Shakespeare’s Plays, has found in Borachio’s lines an echo of 1 Corinthians 1:27-29:

But God hath chosen the foolish things of the world to confound the wise, and God hath chosen the weak things of the world, to confound the mighty things, And vile things of the world, and things which are despised, hath God chosen, and things which are not to bring to nought things that are. That no flesh should rejoice in his presence.[12]

The argument here is that Dogberry, Verges, and the watchmen, fools though they may be, are effective instruments of divine grace. Attention to the language of Dogberry and his associates will show that their malapropisms (words used paradoxically, often inappropriately or mistakenly) open up expansive possibilities for grace when seemingly more apt words are also more limiting of meaning.[13] One of the economical features of malapropisms, as this essay shows, is the ability to encompass various meanings, related or disparate, simultaneously. The paradoxes of the constabulary’s language also dramatize some of the significant ideas of Reformed Christianity. The first effect of Dogberry’s malapropic grace is the recovery of Borachio to repentance, as can be noted in the passage quoted previously. A second effect is the restoration of “disgraced” Hero’s reputation. Hero’s temporary disgrace, at the interruption of her wedding, is dramatized as a symbolic death and a spiritual loss. Dogberry may be labeled a foolish character, but he is aware of the spiritual consequence of Hero’s disgrace, and through restoring Borachio, he also has a direct role in restoring Hero to the grace of holy matrimony. Or, in other words, as far as Hero is concerned, Dogberry removes the “impediment” to her being married.[14]

Grace is a constant feature in Dogberry’s lexicon. In Act 3, scene 5, the deputy Verges interrupts Dogberry’s conversation with Hero’s father Leonato with news of the arrest of “arrant knaves.” Dogberry’s response attributes Verges’s earnest interruption to the slights faults of age:

Dogberry [referring to Verges]: A good old man, sir, he will be talking. As they say, ‘When the age is in, the wit is out.’ God help us, it is a world to see! Well said, i’faith, neighbour Verges. Well, God’s a good man. An two men ride of a horse, one must ride behind. An honest soul, i’faith, sir, by my troth, he is, as ever broke bread. But, God is to be worshipped, all men are not alike. Alas, good neighbour!

Leonato Indeed, neighbour, he comes too short of you.

Dogberry Gifts that God gives.

Leonato I must leave you. (3.5.32 – 42)

As much as the readers and audience members may enjoy Dogberry’s apparent malapropisms and non sequiturs, one may also sympathize with Leonato’s impatience here, especially after Dogberry has earlier bestowed all of his tediousness upon him.[15]

What motivates Dogberry’s line “Gifts that God gives” (3.5.41)? And what are the gifts that God gives? The phrase itself, “gifts that God gives,” may function as  the simplest possible definition of divine grace acceptable to all early modern Christians—from Reformed, Anglican, and Catholic traditions. With “gifts that God gives,” Dogberry may be referring to Verges’s honesty (“An honest soul, i’faith, sir, by my troth, he is, as ever broke bread.” 3.5.36-37), but “gifts” is plural, so what else are God’s gifts? Dogberry’s allusion to God’s grace seems to lack a referent in its context. The difficulty Leonato and textual editors have of scrutinizing Dogberry’s language here may suggest the inscrutability of divine grace in theological discourse, as we observed in Hooker’s arguments cited earlier. In Reformation and Anglican theology, divine grace towards salvation is given with neither effort nor merit on the part of the recipient. Thus, grace towards salvation may surprise a recipient, coming without reference to the earthly occasion of its appearance.

Part of my argument is that Dogberry’s language recreates the puzzlement and surprise that Reformed theology would imply at the appearance of divine grace. When Dogberry speaks of grace, we may expect his discourse to lack context. However, we are alerted to rethink the sense of Dogberry’s words when, at the beginning of the legal examination scene of Borachio and Conrade (4.2), he asks, “Is our whole dissembly appeared?” Shakespeare’s coinage of “dissembly” is usually annotated as a malapropism for “assembly,” but what if the word can be taken to mean “an assembly of dissemblers”? “Dissembler” in Shakespeare’s time was a common word for a double-talker.[16] Much Ado about Nothing is, in fact, a play full of dissembling for good intentions (e.g., Benedick’s friends deceive him into believing that Beatrice loves him, and Beatrice’s friends deceive her into believing that Benedick loves her) and bad intentions (such as sullying Hero’s virtuous reputation). Should we expect some Shakespearean dissembling in Dogberry’s malapropisms? Is there some pointing towards God’s grace with Dogberry, that he and his associates accomplish so much more than what could be expected from common characterization as mere fools?[17]

Editors usually annotate Dogberry’s malapropisms as mistakes for which they supply the word they suppose he should have said or intended. Thus, the Arden, the Pelican, the Bevington, the New Folger, and the Norton editors all annotate “dissembly” as Dogberry’s simple mistake for “assembly.” The problem with most editions of Much Ado is that their glosses implicitly close off the additional possibilities of meaning in Dogberry’s and his associates’ words as performed, whether in their dissembly or in their uses of religious language. Diffused in Dogberry’s dissembling performance of law enforcement is his parody of grace.[18] Although Dogberry is regarded as Shakespeare’s most developed user of malapropisms, the fact that he converses with Verges and the First Watchman while they use similar malapropisms suggests that within their own limited semiotic system, they are communicating meaningfully. Furthermore, and especially pertinent to this discussion, both Dogberry and his associates converse as if they have an amateur interest in theology.

At Dogberry’s first appearance in the play, he questions his deputy Verges about the new nightwatch recruits (a group of true-hearted misfits, as we come to learn):

Dogberry Are you good men and true?

Verges Yea, or else it were pity but they should suffer salvation, body and soul.

Dogberry Nay, that were a punishment too good for them, if they should have any allegiance in them, being chosen for the prince’s watch. (3.3.1 – 6)

If the new recruits are not good men, that would be a pity, but we should resist the simplistic glossing of Verges’s “salvation” as a simple mistake for “damnation.” It is also possible that “suffer” is the ironic term in his comment; after all, in both Protestant and Catholic theologies, the gift (grace) of salvation goes to those who are not good men and true. In fact, “There is none righteous, no not one” (Romans 3:10). In Elizabethan English, “suffer” often has the meanings of “to permit or allow” and “to experience,” as we can see in the gospels: “Suffer little children, and forbid them not to come to me: for of such is the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 19:14). Verges can mean either that bad men will suffer damnation or that bad men will experience (suffer) salvation, making both face-value and punning readings of Verges’s comment plausible.

The parody of the Reformed understanding of grace continues when those “chosen for the prince’s watch” are examined to identify the “most desertless man” to be the leader of the watch. “Desertless,” meaning “undeserving,” is commonly glossed as a blunder for “deserving,” but to be chosen to serve the prince while undeserving would parallel the unmerited, unconditional election of the saints in Reformed English theology. The watchman chosen to be the leader is apparently George Seacoal, to whom Dogberry says, “God hath blessed you with a good name. To be a well-favoured man is the gift of fortune, but to write and read comes by nature” (3.3.14 – 16). Dogberry then instructs Seacoal, “Well, for your favour, sir, why, give God thanks, and make no boast of it” (3.3.19 – 20). Dogberry alludes to the language of Ephesians 2:8-9: “For by grace are ye saved through faith, and that not of yourselves: it is the gift of God, not of works, lest any man should boast himself.” Here the foolish leader of the watch rightly (in a theological sense) points out that if Seacoal’s good name and good favor are gifts of God, examples of God’s grace to him, then he has no cause to boast.

Ironically, one of the common arguments against Calvinist theology is that it implicitly permits lawlessness because grace can theoretically be given to any sinner, no matter how reprobate. In Dogberry’s instructions of his rag-tag band of watchmen, Shakespeare provides a comic consideration of that very argument. Dogberry’s approach to law enforcement consistently calls to mind the theological dichotomy of law and grace, and always in favor of grace. Regarding thieves, Dogberry instructs the watch:

Dogberry If you meet a thief, you may suspect him, by virtue of your office, to be no true man. And for such kind of men, the less you meddle or make with them, why, the more is for your honesty.

Watchman If we know him to be a thief, shall we not lay hands on him?

Dogberry Truly, by your office you may; but I think they that touch pitch will be defiled. The most peaceable way for you, if you do take a thief, is to let him show himself what he is, and steal out of your company.

Verges You have been always called a merciful man, partner. (3.3.49 – 60)

Dogberry’s reference to the defilement caused by pitch is an allusion to a verse from the Apocrypha, Ecclesiasticus 13:1, “He that toucheth pitch, shall be defiled with it: and he that is familiar with the proud, shall be like unto him.” Dogberry’s instructions to the watch on the handling of thieves minimize any spiritual distinction of law enforcer and lawbreaker, emphasizing instead the commonality of sinners. Thus, Dogberry’s mercy extends in both directions. His mercy towards the watchmen appears in his concern for their honesty, and thus their sanctification, which is put at risk when they meddle with thieves (much as one becomes proud in the company of the proud).

In an earlier line in the same scene, Dogberry charges the watch to “comprehend all vagrom men” (3.3.25). Editors commonly annotate “comprehend” as an error for “apprehend,” but perhaps Dogberry does, in fact, charge the watchmen to comprehend the spiritual states of those they apprehend. We do not have to choose a single, supposedly correct meaning when theological malapropisms allow for more meanings. Dogberry’s mercy to the thief could be to help the thief to reach an understanding of his own spiritual state—“let him show himself what he is.” Such recognition of one’s own spiritual status and/or fallenness is paradoxically a sign in Reformed theology that one may have God’s grace leading to repentance.

The villains the watch later “comprehends” (3.5.44) are Borachio and Conrade while Borachio is revealing his wooing of Margaret (disguised as Hero) to deceive Claudio. George Seacoal orders the other watchmen to “call up the right Master Constable! We have here recovered the most dangerous piece of lechery that ever was known in the commonwealth” (3.3.159 – 161). For these lines, editorial glosses (such as those in the Pelican and the third series Arden editions) read “recovered” as a mistake for “discovered” and “lechery” for “treachery.” But rather than mistakes, all of these meanings make sense here. Borachio’s treachery occurs in his performance of lechery with Margaret, and more significant for Borachio is the recovery of his treacherous lechery in Dogberry’s dissembly.

In Dogberry’s dis-assembly of law, the proceedings begin not as a legal examination of points of evidence and culpability, but as a spiritual examination of the state of Borachio’s and Conrade’s souls:

Dogberry Masters, do you serve God?

Conrade, Borachio Yea, sir, we hope.

Dogberry Write down that they hope they serve God; and write ‘God first, for God defend but God should go before such villains! (4.2.18 – 22).

Left to Dogberry’s guidance, the examination would never get to any legal point at issue, but the sexton reminds Dogberry to call for the testimony of the watchmen. Upon the sexton’s questioning, despite Dogberry’s misdirections, sufficient evidence is gathered to sustain the charges of slander which are later brought to Leonato.

Perhaps the Dogberry line which most resembles a Reformist aphorism is his conclusion of the watch’s deposition; to Borachio he says, “O villain! Thou wilt be condemned into everlasting redemption for this” (4.2.58 – 59). “Redemption” is glossed in the Bevington, Arden (Third Series), Norton, New Folger, and Pelican editions as a mistake for “damnation,” but in a 1973 Shakespeare Quarterly article, John Allen writes:

[The] notion of being condemned into redemption is not actually nonsense at all but is a familiar Christian paradox—to be found, for instance, in the Donnesque conceit in which the sinner’s heart becomes a boon because it is drawn, like iron, to the magnet, God. Taken in this way, the remark applies quite aptly to Borachio, who shows distinct signs of going straight after he has been caught red-handed in his dirty work. Obviously, Dogberry is entirely unaware of this, but Shakespeare was not as he frequently put words of wisdom, intentional and otherwise, into the mouths of children and fools.[19]

The paradox Allen identifies is perhaps not universal within Christian theology, but it is certainly central to a Reformed English notion of predestination. Furthermore, Dogberry’s persistent recourse to theological language suggests that he is more aware of theology than he is of his obligations as a law enforcer. Perhaps the more ironic word in “Thou wilt be condemned into everlasting redemption” is “condemned” rather than “redemption,” “condemned” by irresistible grace to election, redemption, and salvation. There is nothing Borachio can do about it.

Borachio’s treacherous lechery is fully recovered by his confessions in Act 5, scene 1. He expresses his willingness to submit to capital punishment for the supposed death, upon his slander, of Hero. His last speech in the play is to clear Margaret from any responsibility for the plot: she “knew not what she did when she spoke to me, / But always hath been just and virtuous / In anything that I do know by her” (5.1.291 – 93). Several critics have read Borachio’s concern for Margaret as a sign of redemption for his character as he leaves the stage. We do not know what happens to Borachio afterwards, but because Hero is in fact alive, he does not face execution, “the reward of a villain” (5.1.234).

If Dogberry, unwittingly or otherwise, performs an ironic conflation of law and grace, the arrangement of his scenes also suggests a kind of providential plot structure. Dogberry deputizes the watchmen, they discover Borachio’s plot, and they try to tell Leonato about it, all before the interrupted nuptials in Act 4. While the play’s title and its merry war between Beatrice and Benedick affirm the play’s generic designation as comedy, the plot of Claudio’s duping has a tragic trajectory which Shakespeare later develops fully in Othello.[20] Why does Shakespeare have the watchmen discover the plot and try to reveal it before the interrupted nuptial scene? What assures the audience that this play will remain a comedy, that the bitterness of act 4, scene 1 will be resolved, if not Dogberry’s four scenes, two before and two after the interrupted nuptial? During the temporary deferment of the sacrament of marriage, Dogberry keeps our attention on the workings of divine grace.[21]

With the exception of John Allen’s article, scholars have not given enough attention to the theological signification of Dogberry’s language. This essay’s reading of Dogberry’s language emphasizes its relationship to Reformed theological discourse. However, my intention is not to assert Shakespeare’s commitment to Reformed theology, nor, through his parody of reformed theology, to Catholic theology. On the one hand, through his creation of Dogberry, Verges, and the watchmen, Shakespeare dramatizes the paradox implicit in Richard Hooker’s theology: that grace is simultaneously inscrutable and knowable by the feeblest brains. On the other hand, and in contrast to Hooker’s view, perhaps we see with Claudio’s reformation that a process involving penance and ritual is efficacious, and thus not just “popish superstition” that God may overlook.

In a more Catholic theological perspective, grace may come as surprise to a recipient, but it may also come sacramentally, requiring the recipient’s participation in response to divine prompting. The Catholic elements of Much Ado about Nothing are easy to recognize in the dramatization of Claudio’s penance. Once his wrong against Hero is revealed, Claudio agrees to submit to any demands of Leonato, Hero’s father: “Choose your revenge yourself. / Impose me to what penance your invention / Can lay upon my sin” (5.1.262 – 264; emphasis mine). Claudio’s penance is to marry Leonato’s supposed “niece,” actually Hero in disguise, which he agrees to do (5.4). Moreover, before Hero is revealed to be alive, Claudio also pledges to do an annual memorial rite at her tomb, which rite he performs in act 5, scene 3. Leonato’s demands for Claudio’s penance accords with the advice of Friar Francis (in 4.1.210 – 243), whose goal is to effect the reconciliation of Claudio and Hero. With penance, ritual, and the advice of a priest, all of this seems conformable to a Catholic perspective. However, as audiences we get to the Catholic-styled reformation of Claudio’s character, we also witness a dramatic representation of Protestant theological perspectives of grace. My argument is that Shakespeare’s representations of Catholic and Protestant perspectives in this play are neither skeptical of religion, nor are they uncommitted on matters of religion, but they investigate and help us to consider what each of these perspectives can tell of the divine activity of grace in human life. In Much Ado about Nothing, rather than an either/or, Shakespeare seems to depict a  both/and, for the meanings of malapropisms and for theologies.

At the risk of oversimplifying, I propose that the unedited signification of Dogberry’s “dissembly” reflects the inherent ironies of unmerited grace in Reformed theology while subordinating the force of law to the audience’s merest expectations of what is appropriate for constables and watchmen. Through the Dogberry plot, Shakespeare shows a clear understanding of key tenets of Reformed theology. But however delightful the constabulary is, one could hardly have much confidence in their continuing success in law enforcement. A resident of Messina may very well hope that “if a merry meeting may be wished, God prohibit it” (5.1.314 – 315). As Reformed theology is parodied through these bumbling characters, what we might see is not so much a Reformist Shakespeare, but a playwright with a sense of divine providence working mysteriously bridging divides—of male and female with Benedick and Beatrice and Claudio and Hero, of English Protestant and Italian Catholic theologies, of “shallow fools” who discover Borachio’s wrongs and “your wisdoms” that missed them, of law in Dogberry’s role and grace in his actions. Even the arrangement of scenes, with two Dogberry scenes coming between Don John’s deceitful plot to smear the reputation of Hero (3.2) and the broken nuptials of Act 4, scene 1, creates an expectation that everything will end with comic resolution, however potentially tragic the slander against Hero appears to be.[22] What we have between the Protestant Dogberry and the Catholic Claudio practicing penance is not a via media, but two distinct ways, joined and overseen by “the divinity that shapes our ends, / Rough-hew them how we will” (Hamlet, 5.2.10 – 11).

Two final points: The argument of this essay does not require supposing that the character Dogberry always knows or does not know every implication of what he is saying. An actor will have to decide what tone Dogberry will use to condemn Borachio into everlasting redemption, but it would be possible, consistent with the text, that Dogberry does indeed mean that Borachio will be redeemed.[23]

Readers of Much Ado about Nothing need to be alert to the potential foreclosure of dialogical meanings if we submit too much to the authority of single-minded textual annotations. As editors try to explain meanings, they may succeed in explaining important, graceful meanings away. “Be vigitant, I beseech you” (3.3.92).

Citation Information

Jack Heller, “Dogberry’s Inscrutable Grace in Much Ado about Nothing,” An Unexpected Journal: Shakespeare & Cultural Apologetics 5, no. 4. (Advent 2022), 131-146.


[1] Richard Hooker, “A Sermon by Richard Hooker with Introductory comments by James Kiefer,” A Learned Discourse on Justification. Christian Classics Ethereal Library, accessed September 24, 2022,

[2] Richard Hooker, Of the Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity (Books I to IV), ed. Christopher Morris (Everyman’s Library), 150-151.

[3] Bible citations with the exception of Ecclesiasticus are from the 1599 Geneva Bible, modernized, at Bible Gateway, accessed September 25, 2022, The modernization of the later Ecclesiasticus verse using a 1560 Geneva Bible facsimile is my own.

[4] “Hooker, Travers & the Battle of the Pulpit 1585–86,” The Temple Church, accessed July 20, 2022, The historical information about this debate comes from both the Temple Church website and the online edition of Hooker’s sermon, cited above.

[5] Thomas Fuller, The History of the Worthies of England (London, 1662), 264. Richard Hooker is associated with Canterbury as the cathedral in Canterbury has been the center of ecclesiastical authority for the Anglican Church since 1541. While both Hooker and Walter Travers have Calvinist theological perspectives, Travers is associated with Geneva as an English Puritan, who were more committed to Genevan ecclesiastical reform. I am grateful to Abbie Weinberg, Research and Reference Librarian at the Folger Shakespeare Library, for helping me to track down the origin of the Fuller quotation.

[6] Richard Hooker, “Error and Heresy Not Always Identical,” A Learned Discourse of Justification. Christian Classics Ethereal Library, accessed September 25, 2022,

[7] Mark Rose, “Conjuring Caesar: Ceremony, History, and Authority in 1599,” English Literary Renaissance 19, no. 3 (Autumn 1989): 293, accessed July 20, 2022,

[8] The original chronicle source is Geoffrey of Monmouth’s twelfth century Historia regum Britanniae, which gives the legendary histories of both Gorboduc and Lear. Norton likely consulted Geoffrey’s history, written in Latin, directly, while Shakespeare used the retelling in Raphael Holinshed’s 1577 Chronicles of England, Scotland, and Ireland. The most notable similarity of Gorboduc and King Lear is that both kings divide their kingdoms between their children.

[9] See Jonas A. Barish, The Anti-Theatrical Prejudice (Berekely, U. of California Press, 1981) for the standard study. My own study of Thomas Middleton’s plays examines the common Elizabethan charge that plays using cross-dressed male actors encouraged sin. Well-known early modern anti-theatrical texts (usually referred to as “Puritan” by literary historians) are Philip Stubbes’s “The Anatomy of Abuses” (1583) and John Rainolds, “Th’Overthrow of Stage-Playes” (1599).

[10] See also Louis Markos, “Letters from Shakespeare: Fools,” in this volume.

[11] William Shakespeare, Much Ado about Nothing, ed. Claire McEachern. The Arden Shakespeare (Third Series), Thomson Learning, 2006, 2016. Quotations from the play are cited in-text parenthetically by act, scene, and line numbers.

[12] Naseeb Shaheen, Biblical References in Shakespeares Plays (University of Delaware Press: 1999), 212.

[13] For a linguistic study of Shakespeare’s malapropisms and how they work, see Mareike Keller, “‘Saying Thus or to the Same Defect’: A Linguistic Analysis of Shakespeare’s Malapropisms,” English Studies 98.3 (2017), 244-61.

[14] In 4.1.10-12, Friar Francis asks Claudio and Hero, “If either of you know any inward impediment why you should not be conjoined, I charge you on your souls to utter it.” Here and in Sonnet 116 (“Let me not to the marriage of true minds / Admit impediments”), Shakespeare echoes the charge of a priest to a marrying couple in the 1559 Book of Common Prayer: “if either of you do know any impediment why ye may not be lawfully joined together in matrimony, that ye confess it.”

[15] Earlier in the play, confused by Dogberry’s “communication style,” Leonato calls him “tedious.” Taking it as a badge of honor, Dogberry responds “if I were as tedious as a king I could find in my heart to bestow it all of your worship” (3.5.19-21).

[16] Earlier in Much Ado, Benedick searches for a double meaning which cannot be found when Beatrice, against her will, calls him in to dinner (2.3.249).

[17] In Unediting the Renaissance, Leah Marcus argues forcefully for reexamining scholars’ editing assumptions and practices that may obscure a range of possible meanings a text may have. Marcus does not discuss Much Ado about Nothing, but I have been influenced here by her examination of the editing of The Tempest, The Taming of the Shrew, and Hamlet. I am arguing here for “unediting” the malapropisms in Much Ado about Nothing.

[18] I acknowledge Shakespeare’s comedic intentions for the malapropisms, but I do not mean that the parody necessarily implies a critical or a demeaning stance towards Dogberry and his associates.

[19] John A. Allen, “Dogberry,” Shakespeare Quarterly 24, no. 1 (Winter 1973): 37. By “the Donnesque conceit,” Allen refers to John Donne’s “Holy Sonnet I”: “Thy grace may wing me to prevent his art, /And thou like adamant draw mine iron heart.”

[20] Othello has a plot parallel to the plot of Much Ado about Nothing, in which Iago, like Borachio and Don John, dupes Othello into believing that his wife Desdemona has been unfaithful to him. However, Othello has no Dogberry intervening to prevent Othello’s jealousy degenerating to murder. In a later play, The Winter’s Tale, often considered a “tragicomedy,” a jealous husband shames his innocent wife and orders that her baby girl (which he madly thinks is the result of adultery) be left to die of exposure. The wife, Hermione, is proclaimed to have died in her prison. Much tragedy occurs in the play, but it is rescued from being “a tragedy” by a shrewish woman who saves (or resurrects?) the mother and two fumbling clown characters who rescue and raise the baby until the play’s gracious, perhaps miraculous, denouement. See also, Grace Tiffany’s essay in this volume.

[21] Without focusing on the language of Dogberry and his associates, Thomas Betteridge also notes their role in restoring grace in the play: “Hero’s unmasking [in 5.4] restores grace to the space of the church, but is also based on a number of arbitrary and highly provisional acts. . . . [A] group of incompetent watchmen, albeit figures with clear Biblical antecedents, have stumbled upon Don John’s plot and exposed his lies.” Thomas Betteridge, “Shakespeare and the Elizabethan and Jacobean Church,” in The Cambridge Companion to Shakespeare and Religion, ed. Hannibal Hamlin (Cambridge University Press, 2019), 11.

[22] Without discussing the religious language, Phoebe Spinrad has noted the opportune times when constables arrive in Shakespeare’s plays: “In this comedic sense, then, Dogberry and Elbow [a constable in Measure for Measure] and all their bumbling kind are the true heroes of their societies and the audience’s. Notably, both of them are presented early enough in their plays to reassure us that no matter how bad things get, someone who can do something is watching, ready to step in when all else fails.” (“Dogberry Hero: Shakespeare’s Comic Constables in Their Communal Context,” Studies in Philology 89, no. 2, 1991, 178.)

[23] In 2017, I had the privilege of directing incarcerated actors in a show of Dogberry scenes at Indiana’s Pendleton Correctional Facility. We were prohibited by prison authorities from using any props and costuming suggesting that Dogberry and the nightwatch were in law enforcement. Therefore, we instead costumed Dogberry as a preacher conducting a neighborhood watch. This characterization, we found, worked very well with Dogberry’s language, though it didn’t account for his interrogation of Borachio.