“So Swift and Excellent a Wit”: Reason and Intuition in Much Ado About Nothing

Much Ado About Nothing opens with a messenger newly arrived to say that visitors are on their way. Don Pedro, Prince of Arragon, has just finished some military action and is bringing his men to Messina for a visit. The news is received by Leonato, Governor of Messina; Hero, his daughter; and Beatrice, his orphaned niece. Leonato inquires about the campaign; the messenger answers. They chat a bit.

Then Beatrice speaks up. “I pray you, is Signior Mountanto returned from the wars or no?” The messenger says, “I know none of that name, lady. There was none such in the army of any sort.” Leonato asks, “What is he that you ask for, niece?” Then Hero says, “My cousin means Signior Benedick of Padua” (I.i.27-31).

much ado beatrice

Montanto is a fencing term for a strike or jab made in an upward direction with a sword. “Mr. Fancy Fighter” is perhaps the most innocent interpretation that could be given to the name “Signior Mountanto.” Whatever Beatrice means here, it isn’t something flattering.

The messenger answers, “O, he’s returned, and as pleasant as ever he was” (I.i.32-3). Beatrice responds with more Benedick-insulting nonsense; the messenger gives another straight answer. They go back and forth for a while, the messenger growing increasingly puzzled. Finally Leonato tells him, “You must not, sir, mistake my niece. There is a kind of merry war betwixt Signior Benedick and her. They never meet but there’s a skirmish of wit between them.”

much ado beatrice benedick

Constant heckling gets tiresome, and Benedick and Beatrice could easily be insufferable boors. They are saved from this by their genuine good will and affection for others. The reactions to them by the characters who know them best make it plain that they are well liked. They are both described as having no trace of melancholy; they aren’t moody or introspective. The word merry is used ten times in the play, seven of which are in connection with Beatrice and Benedick. The messenger, after his prolonged teasing by Beatrice, ends by saying, “I will hold friends with you, lady,” to which Beatrice replies, “Do, good friend” (I.i.80-1). For a stranger to perceive the playful good humor behind her wit is testimony to her personal warmth.

The word wit occurs thirty-three times in this play. Twenty of these are in reference to Benedick and Beatrice. Wit can be defined as “a natural aptitude for using words and ideas in a quick and inventive way to create humor.” This is the normal mode of communication for Benedick and Beatrice. Their speech is filled with puns (often bawdy), hyperbole, and bewildering turns of fancy. Benedick’s fellow soldiers are so used to hearing him speak this way that when at last they hear him speak plainly (which happens no earlier than Act V), they don’t believe him, even after he repeatedly insists he’s serious. And anytime Beatrice and Benedick are together with their respective wits, things escalate fast.

Humor can be used to disguise meaning, to deflect perception, to have it both ways. You can wrap up some genuine inquiry or declaration in humor to see how it’ll be received; if not so well, you can always say, I was only joking. In this way you can feel out the other person without communicating your true self, take without giving, and avoid looking like a fool.

Beatrice and Benedick have much to disguise, even from themselves, for they have been in love for some time. The audience realizes this long before they do. When the messenger first arrives, Leonato asks how many soldiers were killed in the recent action; the messenger says only a few but doesn’t name names. Beatrice wants to know particulars. What about Benedick? Is he alive? What’s he doing? Who’s his companion? But to ask directly would betray her feelings, so she couches her inquiry in an insult. Her listeners are too dazzled by her wit to realize she asks no fewer than seven questions about Benedick’s doings. She doesn’t inquire about any other soldier in Don Pedro’s company.

The soldiers arrive, and before Benedick has had a chance to say more than a few lines of pleasantries to his host, this exchange takes place between him and Beatrice.

BEATRICE

I wonder that you will still be talking, Signior Benedick. Nobody marks you.

BENEDICK

What, my dear Lady Disdain! are you yet living?

BEATRICE

Is it possible Disdain should die while she hath such meet food to feed it as Signior Benedick? Courtesy itself must convert to Disdain if you come in her presence.

BENEDICK

Then is courtesy a turncoat. But it is certain I am loved of all ladies, only you excepted; and I would I could find in my heart that I had not a hard heart, for truly I love none.

BEATRICE

A dear happiness to women! They would else have been troubled with a pernicious suitor. I thank God and my cold blood, I am of your humor for that. I had rather hear my dog bark at a crow than a man swear he loves me.

BENEDICK

God keep your ladyship still in that mind! So some gentleman or other shall scape a predestinate scratched face.

BEATRICE

Scratching could not make it worse an ’twere such a face as yours were.

BENEDICK

Well, you are a rare parrot-teacher.

BEATRICE

A bird of my tongue is better than a beast of yours.

BENEDICK

I would my horse had the speed of your tongue, and so good a continuer. But keep your way, a God’s name! I have done.

BEATRICE

You always end with a jade’s trick. I know you of old. (I.i.103-30)

much ado jade's trick

Why does Beatrice say no one marks Benedick if in fact no one does mark him? Why point out that no one is listening to him if no one really is? She, for one, is certainly listening, and once she delivers her jab everyone else within earshot will be listening as well. Benedick takes up the exchange eagerly, as if he was just waiting for an opportunity; he fairly pounces on her words. He is quick to introduce the subject of love to the conversation and to remind everyone present that he loves none; and Beatrice is just as quick to say that she feels the same way. In this, their opposition to love and marriage, they are strangely united. They are alike; they are superior to ordinary mortals who let their feelings run away with them. Beatrice’s final line is most intriguing of all: “I know you of old.” Benedick and Beatrice have a history, often hinted at but never fully explained.

Neither of them is accomplishing anything here; neither is really trumping the other. Everything they say is designed to prolong the encounter, effectively daring the other to top that, if you may. If they disliked each other as much as they claim, they could easily say something game-ending or say nothing at all.

The women withdraw, and Benedick’s friend Claudio, a young count who has distinguished himself in the recent action, asks Benedick’s opinion of Hero.

much ado claudio

CLAUDIO

Benedick, didst thou note the daughter of Signior Leonato?

BENEDICK

I noted her not, but I looked on her.

CLAUDIO

Is she not a modest young lady?

BENEDICK

Do you question me as an honest man should do, for my simple true judgment? or would you have me speak after my custom, as being a professed tyrant to their sex?

CLAUDIO

No, I pray thee speak in sober judgment.

BENEDICK

Why, i’ faith, methinks she’s too low for a high praise, too brown for a fair praise, and too little for a great praise. Only this commendation I can afford her, that were she other than she is, she were unhandsome, and being no other but as she is, I do not like her.

CLAUDIO

Thou thinkest I am in sport. I pray thee tell me truly how thou lik’st her.

BENEDICK

Would you buy her, that you enquire after her?

CLAUDIO

Can the world buy such a jewel?

BENEDICK

Yea, and a case to put it into. But speak you this with a sad brow? or do you play the flouting Jack, to tell us Cupid is a good hare-finder and Vulcan a rare carpenter? Come, in what key shall a man take you to go in the song?

CLAUDIO

In mine eye she is the sweetest lady that ever I looked on.

BENEDICK

I can see yet without spectacles, and I see no such matter. There’s her cousin, an she were not possessed with a fury, exceeds her as much in beauty as the first of May doth the last of December. (I.i.143-71)

much ado hero beatrice

Much of the humor in this scene arises from the contrast between Claudio’s deadly seriousness and Benedick’s jests. And though he is jesting, Benedick is something of a straight man here; Claudio is the one using inflated language. But Benedick’s plain-spoken, sober-minded praise of Beatrice’s beauty resonates more, is more valuable, than Claudio’s contrived raptures about Hero.

Claudio confides to Don Pedro that he’s in love with Hero. Don Pedro approves, and furthermore, offers to woo Hero in Claudio’s place that very night at a masked dance. This interference seems a bit much even for a well-intentioned commanding officer and nobleman. As is admitted outright later in the play, the soldiers are bored and ready to stir things up, and some of their stirring up ultimately leads to a lot of trouble and heartache for themselves and Leonato’s household. Much could be drawn from this play about the effect of too quickly reintroducing men newly returned from combat back into civilian society. The Prince and Claudio behave like warriors with Issues: quick to close ranks, exaggerating perceived threats, overreacting to provocation, and dispensing summary justice.

much ado guys

The ultimate source of the provocation is Don John, the Prince’s illegitimate brother, who stood against the Prince in the recent military action. He was defeated and is now in a sort of probation. This chafes at him. He isn’t truly repentant at all and would love nothing more than to stir up trouble, especially for his brother and Claudio, whose recent renown came at Don John’s expense. At the masked dance, Don John, pretending to mistake Claudio for Benedick, tells him that Don Pedro is wooing Hero for himself, and Claudio believes him. But the misunderstanding is soon cleared up, and Hero and Claudio agree to marry as soon as possible.

Disguise is a recurring element in this play. Characters are often masked, literally or figuratively. Unlike Rosalind and Viola, other romantic heroines of Shakespearean comedies, Beatrice does not dress up in men’s clothing, but she and Benedick both use wit as a disguise.

much ado masks

They share a dance. Benedick wears a mask, and he pretends to be someone else and tells Beatrice all the unpleasant things he has heard about her. She sees through this transparent ruse but plays along and gives him what-for by abusing Benedick to himself. Her insults leave his in the dust.

Why, he is the Prince’s jester, a very dull fool. Only his gift is in devising impossible slanders. None but libertines delight in him; and the commendation is not in his wit, but in his villainy; for he both pleases men and angers them, and then they laugh at him and beat him (II.i.122-7).

Beatrice criticizes Benedick for being critical, which is appropriate considering that he just criticized her, and also ironic because she is just as habitually critical as he is. Her jabs hit home; Benedick seems truly hurt by the suggestion that people dislike him, and tries to reassure himself afterwards that this isn’t true.

Later he vents to the Prince and Claudio.

O, she misused me past the endurance of a block! An oak but with one green leaf on it would have answered her; my very visor began to assume life and scold with her. She told me, not thinking I had been myself, that I was the Prince’s jester, that I was duller than a great thaw; huddling jest upon jest with such impossible conveyance upon me that I stood like a man at a mark, with a whole army shooting at me. She speaks poniards, and every word stabs. If her breath were as terrible as her terminations, there were no living near her; she would infect to the North Star. I would not marry her though she were endowed with all that Adam had left him before he transgressed. She would have made Hercules have turned spit, yea, and have cleft his club to make the fire too. Come, talk not of her. You shall find her the infernal Ate in good apparel. I would to God some scholar would conjure her, for certainly, while she is here, a man may live as quiet in hell as in a sanctuary; and people sin upon purpose, because they would go thither; so indeed all disquiet, horror, and perturbation follows her (II.i.214-35).

This is a long speech with lots of hyperbole. There is nothing understated or subtle about Benedick or Beatrice. Benedick says he would not marry Beatrice if she were basically endowed with every conceivable virtue; well, who’s asking him to? Who brought up marriage but himself? He says, “Come, talk not of her,” and then proceeds to go on talking of her. No one else talks about her half as much as he does. No one else has anything like his interest in the subject.

much ado benedick

After the dance, Benedick reflects on Claudio’s defection to the ranks of lovers and ponders whether he himself might one day fall in love.

I do much wonder that one man, seeing how much another man is a fool when he dedicates his behaviors to love, will, after he hath laughed at such shallow follies in others, become the argument of his own scorn by falling in love; and such a man is Claudio. I have known when there was no music with him but the drum and the fife; and now had he rather hear the tabor and the pipe. I have known when he would have walked ten mile afoot to see a good armor; and now will he lie ten nights awake carving the fashion of a new doublet. He was wont to speak plain and to the purpose, like an honest man and a soldier; and now is he turned orthography; his words are a very fantastical banquet—just so many strange dishes. May I be so converted and see with these eyes? I cannot tell; I think not. I will not be sworn but love may transform me to an oyster; but I’ll take my oath on it, till he have made an oyster of me he shall never make me such a fool. One woman is fair, yet I am well; another is wise, yet I am well; another virtuous, yet I am well; but till all graces be in one woman, one woman shall not come in my grace. Rich she shall be, that’s certain; wise, or I’ll none; virtuous, or I’ll never cheapen her; fair, or I’ll never look on her; mild, or come not near me; noble, or not I for an angel; of good discourse, an excellent musician, and her hair shall be of what color it please God. (II.iii.7-32)

Benedick’s defense against falling in love is that it will take no less than a flawless paragon of beauty, intellect, and virtue to win his heart, but very soon after he is undone by a simple hoax. The Prince decides to amuse himself in his down time by bringing Beatrice and Benedick together. Claudio, Hero, and Leonato all agree to help. Because the two potential lovers are so contrary, they must be tricked: the men will speak so as to be overheard by Benedick about how Beatrice is secretly in love with him, and Hero and her maid Ursula will serve Beatrice the same way.

much ado benedick listening

The plan goes off beautifully. With Benedick eavesdropping from the arbor, Claudio, Don Pedro, and Leonato talk at length about how hopelessly Beatrice is in love with him, how worthy a woman she is, and how Benedick is too proud and disdainful too ever requite her. When they are gone, he reflects on what he has heard.

This can be no trick. The conference was sadly borne; they have the truth of this from Hero; they seem to pity the lady. It seems her affections have their full bent. Love me? Why, it must be requited. I hear how I am censured. They say I will bear myself proudly if I perceive the love come from her. They say too that she will rather die then give any sign of affection. I did never think to marry. I must not seem proud. Happy are they that hear their detractions and can put them to mending. They say the lady is fair—’tis a truth, I can bear them witness; and virtuous—’tis so, I cannot reprove it; and wise, but for loving me—by my troth, it is no addition to her wit, nor no great argument of her folly, for I will be horribly in love with her. I may chance have some odd quirks and remnants of wit broken on me because I have railed so long against marriage. But doth not the appetite alter? A man loves the meat in his youth that he cannot endure in his age. Shall quips and sentences and these paper bullets of the brain awe a man from the career of his humor? No, the world must be peopled. When I said I would die a bachelor, I did not think I should live till I were married. Here comes Beatrice. By this day, she’s a fair lady! I do spy some marks of love in her (II.iii.202-25).

For such a professed cynic, Benedick is easily taken in. The possibility of deception is mentioned in his very first sentence, only to be dismissed at once. Thinking you’re clever can make you easier to fool, but something more is going on here. Benedick’s objections to marriage, and to Beatrice in particular, could not be so quickly overcome if they had not been so flimsy to begin with. Truth is, he’s glad for the excuse.

Not long after, Hero arranges to have Beatrice listen in on her conversation with Ursula. They speak of Benedick’s merit and Beatrice’s scorn; they agree that it’s a hopeless case. Their words hit home.

much ado beatrice listening

After they depart, Beatrice says,

What fire is in mine ears? Can this be true?

     Stand I condemned for pride and scorn so much?

Contempt, farewell! and maiden pride, adieu!

     No glory lives behind the back of such.

And, Benedick, love on; I will requite thee,

     Taming my wild heart to thy loving hand.

If thou dost love, my kindness shall incite thee

     To bind our loves up in a holy band;

For others say thou dost deserve, and I

Believe it better than reportingly (II.iii.107-16).

Before either of them can make a move, the time comes for Hero and Claudio’s wedding. After Don John’s lie to Claudio fails to amount to much mischief, he hatches a far more ambitious scheme. One of his own men, Borachio, proposes to have a romantic encounter with Margaret, one of Hero’s maids, in Hero’s window for Claudio and the Prince to see. Claudio will mistake Margaret for Hero and call off his marriage; Hero’s reputation and future prospects will be ruined; her family will be shamed. Don John revels in the collateral damage; the more people are made miserable, the better satisfied he will be.

much ado baddies

The ruse succeeds. Don John slanders Hero to the Prince and Claudio, saying that she has had many illicit lovers, and arranges for them to see the tryst at the window. Claudio is incensed. He vows to keep his rage in check until the day of the intended wedding, when he will publicly shame Hero at the altar before her family and the entire community. And this he does, with the Prince backing him up. Hero faints from shock and grief, and Don John, Don Pedro, and Claudio stalk off.

Leonato’s behavior in the altar scene is appalling. At first, when the reason for Claudio’s sudden coldness to Hero is unclear, Leonato almost bends over backwards to smooth things over, calling Claudio son and dear my lord. After Claudio accuses Hero of being unchaste, Leonato assumes that Claudio himself seduced her, and he is absurdly conciliatory, almost apologetic. But once he fully understands the allegation, he turns on Hero with startling ferocity, shaming her and wishing her dead. When she protests her innocence, he retorts, “Would the two princes lie? and Claudio lie,/Who loved her so that, speaking of her foulness,/Washed it with tears?” (IV.i.149-51) This is as much as to say that Hero would lie, that he believes their word over hers. Also, this all takes place shortly after Leonato himself has taken part in a successful trick on Benedick. Though deceived, Leonato is much to blame.

much ado post accusation

Beatrice defends her cousin, but blindly; she is bewildered as to why the Prince and Claudio would lie or how they could have made such a mistake.

Benedick doesn’t storm off with his fellow soldiers, he remains with Beatrice, Hero, and Leonato. In the midst of the vitriol and drama, his words are a balm, though all he says is that he doesn’t understand what’s going on. Under the circumstances, withholding judgment is the most reasonable and fair-minded thing he can do.

Then the friar speaks. He has been watching Hero closely throughout the ordeal and is convinced that she is telling the truth. He says that the princes—Don Pedro and Don John—must be mistaken, and Benedick suddenly realizes that Don John must be to blame.

The friar proposes that Leonato pretend that Hero has died of grief. In this way he will allow some time for the truth to come to light and for Don Pedro and Claudio to repent of what they’ve done. This might seem like an extreme course of action, but in a culture that highly valued a woman’s reputation for virtue, the loss of a good name was a serious, life-altering thing. Benedick agrees with the friar’s plan and vows to keep it secret from the prince and Claudio.

The others exit, leaving Benedick and Beatrice alone. They have this exchange.

BENEDICK

Surely I do believe your fair cousin is wronged.

BEATRICE

Ah, how much might the man deserve of me that would right her!

BENEDICK

Is there any way to show such friendship?

BEATRICE

A very even way, but no such friend.

BENEDICK

May a man do it?

BEATRICE

It is a man’s office, but not yours.

BENEDICK

I do love nothing in the world so well as you. Is not that strange?

BEATRICE

As strange as the thing I know not. It were as possible for me to say I loved nothing so well as you. But believe me not; and yet I lie not. I confess nothing, nor I deny nothing. I am sorry for my cousin.

BENEDICK

By my word, Beatrice, thou lovest me.

BEATRICE

Do not swear and eat it.

BENEDICK

I will swear by it that you love me, and I will make him eat it that says I love not you.

BEATRICE

Will you not eat your word?

BENEDICK

With no sauce that can be devised to it. I protest I love thee.

BEATRICE

Why then, God forgive me!

BENEDICK

What offense, sweet Beatrice?

BEATRICE

You have stayed me in a happy hour. I was about to protest I loved you.

BENEDICK

And do it with all thy heart.

BEATRICE

I love you with so much of my heart that none is left to protest.

BENEDICK

Come, bid me do anything for thee.

BEATRICE

Kill Claudio.

BENEDICK

Ha! not for the wide world!

BEATRICE

You kill me to deny it. Farewell.

BENEDICK

Tarry, sweet Beatrice.

BEATRICE

I am gone, though I am here. There is no love in you. Nay, I pray you let me go.

BENEDICK

Beatrice—

BEATRICE

In faith, I will go.

BENEDICK

We’ll be friends first.

BEATRICE

You dare easier be friends with me than fight with mine enemy.

BENEDICK

Is Claudio thine enemy?

BEATRICE

Is ’a not approved in the height a villain, that hath slandered, scorned, dishonored my kinswoman? O that I were a man! What? bear her in hand until they come to take hands, and then with public accusation, uncover slander, unmitigated rancor—O God, that I were a man! I would eat his heart in the market place.

BENEDICK

Hear me, Beatrice—

BEATRICE

Talk with a man out at a window!—a proper saying!

BENEDICK

Nay, but Beatrice—

BEATRICE

Sweet Hero! she is wronged, she is slandered, she is undone.

BENEDICK

Beat—

BEATRICE

Princes and Counties! Surely a princely testimony, a goodly count, Count Comfect, a sweet gallant surely! O that I were a man for his sake! or that I had any friend would be a man for my sake! But manhood is melted into cursies, valor into compliment, and men are only turned into tongue, and trim ones too. He is now as valiant as Hercules that only tells a lie, and swears it. I cannot be a man with wishing; therefore I will die a woman with grieving.

BENEDICK

Tarry, good Beatrice. By this hand, I love thee.

BEATRICE

Use it for my love some other way than swearing by it.

BENEDICK

Think you in your soul the Count Claudio hath wronged Hero?

BEATRICE

Yea, as sure as I have a thought or a soul.

BENEDICK

Enough, I am engaged. I will challenge him.

(IV.i.257-326)

This is as riveting a back-and-forth as any they have had so far, and more, because for the first time they are speaking plainly without a single jest. The depth of Beatrice’s character is revealed—her ferocious loyalty, her sense of justice, her desire for vindication of her cousin’s good name. When she says she would be willing to fight to defend Hero’s honor, we believe her. And Benedick agrees to fight a duel with a comrade at arms whom he loves like a brother, based on Beatrice’s assurance of her cousin’s innocence. He trusts her that much, and values honor as much as she does.

One of the most beautiful things about this play is also what keeps it from being too dark for a comedy while still allowing the characters a broad emotional range. After the staged scene at the window between Borachio and Margaret, but before Hero has been accused, the members of the watch overhear Borachio as he is bragging about the success of his evil scheme and arrest him. Dogberry, the constable, actually tries to tell Leonato this before the wedding, but his manner of speaking is so obscure, so overblown and full of malapropisms, that Leonato brushes him off. But we are confident that Dogberry will return and the truth will out. Even as Leonato is refusing to be comforted, the sexton is on his way with good news. We can sympathize with the characters’ misery, but we know their deliverance is nigh.

much ado dogberry

By the time Benedick confronts Don Pedro and Claudio, they have received word that Hero is dead. Benedick rebukes them both and challenges Claudio to single combat.

You are a villain. I jest not; I will make it good how you dare, with what you dare, and when you dare. Do me right, or I will protest your cowardice. You have killed a sweet lady, and her death shall fall heavy on you. Let me hear from you (V.i.143-7).

much ado challenge

Claudio and the Prince think Benedick is joking, and they joke back with him, showing no remorse over Hero’s supposed death. Perhaps there is some suppressed guilt in their humor; it certainly goes on a long time, long after it ought to be plain to them that he is serious, long beyond the bounds of good taste. Finally Benedick tells Claudio,

Fare you well, boy; you know my mind. I will leave you now to your gossip-like humor. You break jests as braggards do their blades, which God be thanked hurt not. [to the Prince] My lord, for your many courtesies I thank you. I must discontinue your company. Your brother the bastard is fled from Messina. You have among you killed a sweet and innocent lady. For my Lord Lackbeard there, he and I shall meet; and till then peace be with him (IV.i.178-186).

Many reversals occur here. For the first time, Benedick is the serious one, and Claudio and the Prince can’t stop joking. Furthermore, Benedick is turning his back on the male companionship and camaraderie that mean so much to him. By now the audience has laughed at his wit many times, but this is his first opportunity to demonstrate that he is a good man.

Immediately after Benedick leaves them, Dogberry shows up with his prisoners.

PEDRO

Officers, what offense have these men done?

DOGBERRY

Marry, sir, they have committed false report; moreover, they have spoken untruths; secondarily, they are slanders; sixth and lastly, they have belied a lady; thirdly they have verified unjust things; and to conclude, they are lying knaves.

PEDRO

First, I ask thee what they have done; thirdly, I ask thee what’s their offense; sixth and lastly, why they are committed; and to conclude, what you lay to their charge.

Who have you offended, masters, that you are thus bound to your answer? This learned constable is too cunning to be understood. What’s your offense?

(IV.i.205-18)

Borachio confesses all and concludes by telling Don Pedro and Claudio, “I have deceived even your very eyes. What your wisdoms could not discover, these shallow fools have brought to light” (V.i.221-3). Dogberry has neither wit nor wisdom to guide him, and he can’t even count to six, but he means well and manages to uncover the truth, foiling the plans of clever criminals almost in spite of himself. In this case, a good heart triumphs over a sharp wit.

Claudio and the Prince both protest to Leonato that they “sinned…not but in mistaking” (IV.i.261-2). This is not satisfactory. The testimony about Hero’s habitual promiscuity was mere hearsay from Don John, and the evidence of their eyes was inconclusive, since they obviously weren’t close enough to see the woman’s face. They could and should have made inquiry and spoken to Leonato privately. Instead they publicly shamed Hero based on circumstantial evidence and an unconfirmed report, all originating from a person they knew to have been previously untrustworthy. Their behavior was graceless, harsh, and based on too high an opinion of their own understanding and importance. They lacked the humility to realize they could be fooled.

From start to finish, the romance between Claudio and Hero has been in sharp contrast to, and less satisfactory than, the one between Benedick and Beatrice. The former is based on very little prior acquaintance; Benedick and Beatrice have known each other a long time. Claudio falls in love based on a visual impression of Hero’s beauty and the virtue that he intuitively imputes to her character; Beatrice and Benedick know one another’s mind. Claudio and Hero are usually speechless in each other’s presence; Beatrice and Benedick won’t stop talking.

much ado claudio hero

Claudio’s love originates in a kind of unreasoning, impressionistic faith, but his rejection of Hero arises from strict (though limited and misguided) factual deduction. His restoration involves a return to faith. Penitent, he yields himself completely to the will of Leonato. Leonato offers an unexpected grace: since Claudio could not be his son-in-law, he will be his nephew instead, and marry the daughter of Leonato’s brother. Claudio agrees. After an all-night vigil at Hero’s grave, designed to inform the entire community of Messina that the accusations against her were false, he arrives at the chapel. Four women are brought out, all masked: Hero, Beatrice, and two maids.

“Which is the lady I must seize upon?” Claudio asks (V.iv.53). Leonato brings Hero forth. Claudio asks to see her face, but Leonato says, “No, that you shall not till you take her hand/Before this friar and swear to marry her” (V.iv.56-7). Formerly taken in by the faulty evidence of his eyes, Claudio must abandon completely his own judgment and outer eye. He must give himself over wholly to the will of another and proceed on faith, which is what he should have had in Hero before. And he does. He says to the masked woman, “Give me your hand before this holy friar./I am your husband if you like of me” (V.iv.58-9).

Removing her mask, Hero replies,

And when I lived I was your other wife;

And when you loved you were my other husband….

One Hero died defiled; but I do live,

And surely as I live, I am a maid (V.i.60-1, 63-4).

Then Benedick steps forward, and before the whole assembly, says,

BENEDICK

Soft and fair, friar. Which is Beatrice?

BEATRICE [unmasks]

I answer to that name. What is your will?

BENEDICK

Do not you love me?

BEATRICE

                                    Why, no; no more than reason.

BENEDICK

Why, then your uncle, and the Prince, and Claudio

Have been deceived—they swore you did.

BEATRICE

Do not you love me?

BENEDICK

                                    Troth, no; no more than reason.

BEATRICE

Why, then my cousin, Margaret, and Ursula

Are much deceived; for they did swear you did.

BENEDICK

They swore that you were almost sick for me.

BEATRICE

They swore that you were well-nigh dead for me.

BENEDICK

’Tis no such matter. Then you do not love me?

BEATRICE

No, truly, but in friendly recompense.

Leonato calls out, “Come, cousin, I am sure you love the gentleman,” and Claudio adds,

And I’ll be sworn upon’t that he loves her;

For here’s a paper written in his hand,

A halting sonnet of his own pure brain,

Fashioned to Beatrice (V.iv.85-8).

Then Hero says,

And here’s another,

Writ in my cousin’s hand, stol’n from her pocket,

Containing her affection unto Benedick (V.iv.88-90).

much ado sonnets

They’re trapped now, but they don’t seem to mind. Benedick says,

A miracle! Here’s our own hands against our hearts. Come, I will have thee; but, by this light, I take thee for pity (V.iv.91-3).

Beatrice replies,

I would not deny you; but, by this good day, I yield upon great persuasion, and partly to save your life, for I was told you were in a consumption (V.iv.94-6).

Those are the last words Beatrice speaks. Benedick replies, “Peace! I will stop your mouth,” and kisses her—which is a pretty good way for wit to conclude (V.iv.97).

much ado stop your mouth

One comment on ““So Swift and Excellent a Wit”: Reason and Intuition in Much Ado About Nothing

  1. […] Why the sudden spike in interest on my extremely lengthy posts about Shakespeare’s Cymbeline and Much Ado About Nothing? I don’t know. But I’m grateful to every reader who has gifted me with time and attention—to […]

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