The central story of this hugely enjoyable play is of a woman falsely accused of having affairs, but ultimately is reconciled with her jealous lover. There is a sub-plot of two people who continually spark off each other, all the while claiming they are merely friends, or even sometimes they do not like each other. They swear they are not attracted to each other.
The scene is Messina, the setting the governor’s palace. Leonato, the governor, has just been his friend Don Pedro of Aragorn is to visit him, hot on the heels of a successful battle. Leanato’s niece Beatrice inquires and makes disparaging remarks about Benedick, with whom she has been having “a merry war” of words.
The party arrives, and the two declare they will never fall in love. Two others are in the party, Claudio (who tells Benedick he has fallen in love with Hero, Leonato’s daughter), and Don John, bastard brother of Pedro. Benedick scorns love and marriage, but Pedro encourages the match. He goes so far as to promise to impersonate Claudio at the scheduled masquerade ball, to woo and win Hero for Claudio. However, a house servant overhears the conversation, but mishears it, and reports to a delighted Leonato that Pedro will woo Hero for himself. Leonato makes appropriate preparations.
Don John begins to reveal his nasty side, and plans to cause great mischief for the travelling party, once he hears of Pedro’s plans. He intends to tell Claudio that Pedro intends to have Hero for himself.
While preparing for the ball, both Beatrice and Hero are gently teased. Hero is reminded she must obey her father’s wishes as regards Don Pedro, and Beatrice states she would happily remain single for the rest of her life.
The ball commences, and the men are all in masks. Don Pedro begins “his” courtship of Hero, and Beatrice, unknowingly dancing with Benedick, calls Benedick a “very dull fool”. Benedick is of course none too pleased at this.
John tells Claudio that Pedro is wooing Hero on his own account, and Claudio gets incensed at this. He angrily confronts Pedro, but Pedro reveals his plans, and the misunderstanding is settled (and John’s evil scheme foiled). Claudio and Hero plan to marry within the week.
For amusement, and to pass the time until the wedding, Pedro and his retinue then decide to match-make Beatrice and Benedick. , Benedick is in the orchard talking about another brave soldier (Claudio) falling to the petticoats of love. He hides when he sees Pedro, Leonato and Claudio approach, but they spot him in hiding, though pretend not to have seen him. They begin a long loud conversation about Beatrice loving him, but too fearful of revealing her love lest Benedick mock her. Once they leave, Benedick declares that he CAN love her, and will prove it.
Hero then ensures Beatrice overhears her and her servants discussing how much Benedick loves her. However, Hero is scathing about Beatrice’s personal faults, calling her proud and disdainful, and that Benedick is afraid she would use his declaration of love as a source of fun. Beatrice is none too happy at the personal remarks, but decides to change her attitude, and love Benedick, if he loves her too.
Don John is back, more determined than ever to wreck the wedding. He plans to get his servant Borachio to pay court to Hero’s servant, in Hero’s room, then arrange that Claudio and Pedro will overhear this romantic conversation, to convince them that it is Hero, and she is being unfaithful.
Now we meet the Keystone Kops of Elizabethan theatre, the Messina Watch, led by constable Dogberry. Dogberry’s language is less than professional, and the men under his command are completely useless. That said, they do manage to overhear Borachio telling another servant of how successful John’s plan was, and that Pedro and Claudio were totally duped, so much so that Claudio plans to denounce Hero at the church the following day. The Watch capture the servants, and eventually Dogberry gets a confession from them that absolves Hero.
While the Watch are interrogating the servants, it is now the following day, and Beatrice is being teased for looking like she’s in love. Hero is getting ready for her wedding. At the church, Claudio follows through on his promise, and basically slanders Hero, who first tries to defend herself, then promptly faints when Pedro backs up Claudio’s story of her unfaithfulness.
The Friar, administering the ceremony, believes Hero, and decides that the best route to the truth is to pretend Hero is dead. Saddened by it all, Beatrice and Benedick declare their love, but Beatrice demands Benedick prove himself by duelling and killing Claudio, who slandered her cousin Hero. After initial misgivings, Benedick agrees.
The Watch reports the confession to Leonato, who then accuses Pedro and Claudio of causing the death of an innocent girl. They refuse to believe it, then Claudio is challenged by Benedick. Dogberry arrives, with Borachio and Conrade (the two servants), and Borachio confesses to them John’s plans.
Claudio is overcome with remorse, and Leonato says he will forgive him if he honours her grave, then marry his brother Antonio’s daughter, who just happens to look exactly like….Hero.
At the wedding, everything comes together. Hero is revealed as the identical daughter, Beatrice and Benedick publicly declare their love, and a messenger arrives to say the villain Don John has been captured. Benedick proposes the wedding proceed before any punishment, and finally advises the lonely Don Pedro to “get thee a wife”.
Beatrice: She is actually the true heroine (see what I did there?) of the play. She has built a wall around her, but you get the sense behind all her wit and sarcasm is someone who really just wants to be loved. She probably is the most rounded of all the characters in the play.
Benedick: He is mostly annoying at the start, treating everything as a big laugh, and not worried about other people and how what he says and does affects them. He likes being the alpha male, being victorious in battle, sneering at Claudio for becoming lovelorn, and telling people what to do in Leonato’s house. However, he too secretly wants to love and be loved, and it is this which changes him.
Hero: The original good girl, she is too meek and kind for her own good. She obediently falls into line with whatever she’s told to do, and faints just after she shows any backbone at all. She also speaks less than the other main characters.
Claudio: Rather immature, and easily led, he is prisoner to his emotions, and tends to erupt passionately, in love and anger. He has a very suspicious nature. He is also somewhat shallow, being willing to marry anyone just to get back into society’s good graces.
Don Pedro: The play’s voice of reason, he is humorous, older and more mature, but very lonely. We sense he, of all of the characters, is most in favour of being married, but hasn’t found a partner by play’s end.
Don John: He is the villain of the piece, but strangely very one-dimensional. We don’t really see why he is so nasty (unless it is a reaction to his bastard status). However, his machinations influences all the action in the play.
Leonato: Elderly, well-respected governor of Messina.
Infidelity and Deception: Everyone is susceptible to the belief that everyone is cheating, yet it is through deceiving people that ultimately good wins through, and everyone ends up happily married. Is deception then a good thing? It depends on what the end is – if to ruin someone’s like (as John tried), then no. However, if used to get two people together who obviously (to others) love each other, then yes. Do two wrongs make a right?
Marriage: This is the end goal of everyone in the play – it bestows respectability, and a certain societal status.
Honour: Accusations of infidelity, and pre-marital sexual “wantonness” was literally a disaster for a woman of Elizabethan times, where she would fall from favour in her social circles, and her whole family would be equally tainted. That is the reason behind the anger in the play.
This is probably the single most important play Shakespeare wrote, that really launched him as a superstar of Elizabethan theatre. It has always drawn huge audiences, and in it you can see the outlines of several plays to come, mainly the tragedies which followed this play (King Lear, Hamlet, Othello and Macbeth). Scholars have pointed out consistencies between characters, e.g. Don John & Iago, with the greater nuance and character development in the later play.
A sound version of the play was first released in film format in 1973, by the Soviet Union. The first sound release in English was Kenneth Branagh’s 1993 version!.
Famous Everyday Phrase Coined/Popularised:
“As merry as the day is long”
“Comparisons are odious”