Commentary from the Dramaturg for MUCH ADO ABOUT NOTHING

Find out more about Much Ado

A Note from the Dramaturg, Emily Sapp

Dear Reader,

In this dramaturgical website, you will find a comprehensive guide to understanding SDSU’s production of Much Ado About Nothing by William Shakespeare. The information I have compiled can help you pull deeper meanings from the plot, explore the play’s historical background, and understand the historical context of the setting of 1880s in California of this particular production of Much Ado. This will include information on the Transcontinental Railroad systems, like the harsh realities that BIPOC communities were living during this time as well as their contributions and involvement on the railroad in California. I have also included a character breakdown for the characters in the play to help you understand who these key players are.

It is a text of many layers; Shakespeare is not for the faint of heart. The dialogue is complex and the relationships between the characters can be confusing. One might become incredibly frustrated that Beatrice and Benedick will not just be honest to themselves or each other about their feelings. Or, one might possibly get upset over Claudio’s quickness to leave Hero, or become delighted with Don John’s incessant but amusing villainy. Or perhaps after reading on the severe difficulties that BIPOC and lower-class communities were going through in the 1880s, one might be chagrined at the drama that the higher class involve themselves in while many others are suffering. Regardless, armed with the knowledge about the world of SDSU’s production of Much Ado About Nothing in this website, you can enjoy the play all the more.

Emily Sapp, Dramaturg

Production History

Much Ado About Nothing has been translated into many different languages and has been produced onstage across the world since its original production by the Lord Chamberlain’s Men in the late 1590s. Many prominent actors have played the coveted roles of Don Pedro, Benedick, and Beatrice, including Sinead Cusack in the Royal Shakespeare’s Company production in 1985, David Tennant and Catherine Tate at Wyndham’s Theatre in 2011, and James Earl Jones and Vanessa Redgrave at the Old Vic theatre in 2013. The play has also been adapted into many films, including Kenneth Branagh’s 1993 film starring Denzel Washington, Emma Thompson, Michael Keaton, Keanu Reeves, and himself. It has been adapted into many television series as well, for example the BBC 1984 version starring Katharine Levy and Cherie Lunghi. An example of a modern story inspired by Much Ado is the 1999 film, 10 Things I Hate About You.


  • Love, courtship, and masquerade
  • “Merry war” of wit
  • Lies and deception
  • Perception and reality
  • Loss of social grace
  • Vengeance and vice
  • Honor, virginity, and shame

The World of the Play

The play is set in California during the 1880s. Many significant things were occurring during this time, and many important events led up to this particular point in time that will give you some historical context for where we lay our scene…

The First Transcontinental Railroad

  • Construction of railroad spanning 2,000 miles from 1863-1869 that connected the U.S. railroad network from Council Bluffs, Iowa to San Francisco Bay
  • Initiated during the Civil War (Apr 12, 1861 – Apr 9, 1865)
  • Many laborers were veterans of Confederate and Union armies and immigrants
  • Union Pacific began construction in 1862 Omaha, Nebraska and continued into Sacramento, CA
  • Central Pacific Railroad began construction in 1863 Sacramento, CA and continued into Nevada
  • Southern Pacific Railroad began construction 1872 and provided railroads between San Francisco and New Orleans
  • The Pacific Railway Acts were signed by President Lincoln to provide federal subsidies in land and loans for the construction

Southern Pacific Railroad
Transcontinental Railroad (1850-1900)


BIPOC and Immigrant Laborers

  • 20,000 estimated Chinese immigrants working on railroad
    • Received lower wages, company did not pay for shelter/lodging, made up 90% of Central Pacific’s workforce
    • 10,000 estimated Irish immigrants working on railroad
  • Fleeing from anti-Irish (“No Irish Need Apply”) discrimination in major cities
  • Slaves and freed slaves working on railroad
    • Southern railroad companies used slave labor on over 75% of southern railroads
    • Over 10,000 slaves a year were working on the railroads in the South between 1857 and 1865 working alongside paid workers
    • Post-Civil War: freed slaves flocked to railroads to avoid agriculture or domestic work
  • Indigenous peoples working on railroad
    • Railroad disrupted and majorly damaged indigenous resources, including land (millions of acres), food (bison), and ways of life.
    • Some tribes (including Cheyanne and Sioux) greatly opposed the railroads, attacked railroad workers and derailed trains
    • Other tribes like Pawnee worked as laborers and scouts for U.S. Army
      • “Over 10,000 Chinese immigrants did the hard work of preparing rail beds, laying tracking, digging tunnels, and constructing bridges. They were paid just $1 per day and worked 12-hour shifts, six days per week.”

Native Women and the Transcontinental Railroad

  • Imposition of commercial farming and boarding schools affected Indigenous women’s (Lakota, Cheyanne, Sioux, Arapaho, Pawnee) roles. Women’s roles as agricultural and pedagogical leaders are usurped.
  • Treaty of Fort Laramie in 1851 broken: “The 1851 treaty created a short period of peace, allowing more settlers to enter tribal lands. However, more settlers created more problems. Before long, all of the treaty terms had been broken. Tensions rose and a period of warfare erupted across the Central Plains. Native warriors across the region conducted raids and killed white settlers. Other Native bands sought peace and accommodation with the Americans. The U.S. Army, tasked with protecting settlers, migrants, telegraph lines, and the railroad, pursued a policy of total war, killing Indian men, women, children, and the elderly.”
  • The Sand Creek Massacre, November 1864: “The American forces killed more than 230 Cheyenne and Arapaho native people, two-thirds of whom were women and children.”
  • “In January 1863 – nearly two years before the massacre at Sand Creek – U.S. Army troops from Salt Lake City decimated a Shoshone encampment near present-day Preston, Idaho. The Bear River Massacre killed more than 350 Shoshone people, mostly women, children, and the elderly. It remains the single largest massacre of native people by American forces west of the Mississippi.”

Black Women and the Transcontinental Railroad

  • Construction, hospitality, and church work most common amongst black women pre and post-Civil War (work to create their own economy)
  • “(Black) women as well as men were actually involved in the hard, dangerous, brutal work of railroad construction and continued to work for railroads after they were built in lesser roles.”
  • “Pullman maids”: nannies as part of luxury travel in early 1900s
  • “They were expected to be able to give manicures, to do – to dress hair, assist ladies with the bath, assist with small children. Some of them were nurses and might be called upon for assistance like that.”
    • “The Pullman Company hired only African American men and women to work as railroad porters and maids. They worked long, hard hours, traveling back and forth across the country, serving train passengers on an as-needed basis. Though the work was arduous, it gave these women and men an opportunity to see the country, to earn better wages than the average day laborer or domestic, and to learn about other communities.” (
  • 1869: West Oakland a “fledgling African-American community with a school and church when it became the western terminus of the Central Pacific Railroad”

White and Eurocentric Women and the Transcontinental Railroad

  • Labelled as “Iron Ladies” who made “made significant and lasting contributions to the historic operation” by modern magazines and museums
  •  Hired as registered nurses/stewardesses in passenger cars, telegraph operators, civil engineers, architects, decorators
  • Other roles included: housekeepers, laundresses, cooks, seamstresses, entertainers and prostitutes who “made their living in pop-up railroad towns set up from Omaha to Sacramento.”
  • Held over 95 patents for inventions directly related to the railroad.

California Indian Genocide

  • Genocide: genocide as specific acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnic, racial, or religious group.
  • Ethnocide: deliberate and systematic attempts to destroy a group’s culture, religion, or ethnic identity, can be interrelated with genocide.
  • Mid-19th Century (namely 1846-1873): U.S. Military and other perpetrators such as miners and settlers systematically kill est. 16,000 indigenous peoples
  • California’s indigenous population: plunged from 150,000 people to around 30,000
  • The population declined to about 100,000 in 1849, during the Gold Rush, and to about 30,000 in 1870. Reached 15,000 to 25,000 during 1890-1900.
  • Spent $1,700,000+ on campaigns against California American Indians
  •  Starvation, degradation, slavery and the murder of children
  • Conflicts argued to be due to ‘economic reasons’: “Indians posed an obstacle to white land use”
  • “In the 20 years following the discovery of gold at Sutter’s Mill, 80 percent of California’s Native American population had been wiped out.”
    • “Sherburne F. Cook estimates that the California Indian population in 1845, before the discovery of gold, had fallen to 150,000, and that it subsequently fell to about 100,000 by 1850, a year after the Gold Rush began. Five years later, when mining activity was at its peak, there were no more than 50,000 California Indians, he states, noting: “Seldom has a native race been subjected to such a catastrophic decimation.” According to Cook, the California Indian population was between 20,000 and 25,000 in the decade 1890-1900. The U.S. census shows 16,624 in 1890 and 15,377 in 1900 but Cook asserts that official recording missed many Indians.” (
Tribal Territories of California

Causes of Mass Death Among American Indians

  • smallpox and other epidemics (i.e. tuberculosis)
  • sexual diseases and rape
  • whisky and attendant dissipations
  • removals, starvation and subjection to unaccustomed conditions
  • low vitality due to mental depression under misfortune
  • wars

Indigenous People during the Mission Period (beginning in 1769)

  • Spanish Franciscan missionary’s arrival in Baja California: 1769
  • Swift decline in American Indian population
  • 1770-1834: population declines from 310,000 to about 245,000
  • Quick spread of disease
  • Forced conversion to Christianity
  • Became farm hands and servants for European settlers and missionaries
  • Many escaped and became “fugitives”
Missions Along CA Coast

Spanish Franciscan Missionaries’ Attitudes Towards Californian American Indians

  • ”All accounts agreed in representing the native of California as among the most stupid, brutish, filthy, lazy and most improvident of the aborigines of America.”
  • Indians were people without religion, without government or laws…who busied themselves about nothing, thought of nothing, cared for nothing, save how to fill their stomachs. This made it extremely difficult for the missionaries to convey the lofty ideas concerning the unseen, supernatural world.” -Zephyrin Engelhardt, a Franciscan writer on the missionary period (

California Legislature’s Discrimination Against California Indians

  • First convened in 1850
  • Barred Indians from voting, becoming attorneys, judges, or serving as jurors
  • Shut out from legal system’s protection and representation
  • Legalization of Indian indentured servitude 
  • Separated indigenous women and men to prevent births
  • Passed bills to fund military operations to kill CA Indians
  • U.S. Sen. John Weller — who became California’s governor in 1858 — went further. He told his colleagues in the Senate that California Indians “will be exterminated before the onward march of the white man,” arguing that “the interest of the white man demands their extinction.”
  • legalized abduction and enslavement of Indian minors

Buffalo Soldiers

  • African American soldiers who mainly served on the Western frontier and railroad systems following the American Civil War
  • 1866 Army Organization Act: six all-Black cavalry and infantry regiments were created
  • Main tasks:
    • help control the Native Americans of the Plains
    •  “tasked with removing another minority group in that government’s name”
    • capture cattle rustlers and thieves and protect settlers, stagecoaches, wagon trains
    • railroad crews along the Western front
  • Dubbed by the Cheyenne and other Plains Indians they encountered who:
    • “saw a resemblance between their dark, curly hair and the matted cushion between the horns of the buffalo”
  • Went to battle with many tribes
  • Served National Parks
    • Duties included: confiscating firearms, curbing poaching of the park’s wildlife, suppressing wildfires, ending illegal grazing of livestock on federal lands, and stopping thefts of timber and other natural objects. They oversaw the construction of roads, trails, and other infrastructure.
    • Approximately 500 Buffalo Soldiers served in Yosemite National Park and nearby Sequoia National Park with duties from evicting poachers and timber thieves to extinguishing forest fires
  • Initially commanded by white officers
  • Received much racism and deadly violence at the hands of white military and white civilians
  • 18 Buffalo Soldiers awarded Medal of Honor after Indian Wars
  • Known for their excellent horsemanship
  • Fought for and against foreign powers
  • Irony of fighting Native peoples for government who institutionally oppressed both groups (blacks and indigenous peoples)

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