The weaknesses and wrongs of Messina and its incapability for civilised seriousness, all cluster in this one obnoxious speech. However Beatrice and Benedick stand apart. Where Messina’s surface social practices are concerned, these two are just as susceptible to error as the rest of Messina and both are extremely fond of gossip and rumour. In the masked dance they play the role of slanderous gossip-bearers to each other and both are fond of eavesdropping and spying which lays them open to Don Pedro’s love-trick.
However, Beatrice and Benedick are not as convention-bound and as role-bound as the others. They are not fixed in set roles by obedience to social stereotypes or artificial notions of pride and honour. They reveal their own blend of wit, romance and appropriate seriousness, unique in the world of Messina, in the two remarkable scenes where mutual love is declared in the shadow of Hero’s disgrace. Here we have an exchanged avowal of surprising love, and Benedick’s initial shocked refusal of Beatrice’s command ‘Kill Claudio’, followed by acceptance of his role as Beatrice’s champion.
It is a scene with its roots in ancient chivalry, and is serious and worthy as a part of that tradition. Emotions run deep. There is a place for profound affection and for volatile anger. Yet conversation is also urbane, sophisticated and witty. The movement to and fro between comedy and seriousness in these scenes is an engagement of civilised and tender beings in a play of mutual discovery, and we witness all their suppleness of mind and feeling employed in the human art of growing and maturing.
In their minds and emotions both Beatrice and Benedick display a kind of agility which is a condition of true life, and compared with them most of the other characters appear wooden and immobile, too easily trapped in destructive roles. These two lovers are unusual and unconventional citizens of this play’s comic world, but are also its most natural and successful ones. Their play on words between ‘hand’ and ‘hands,’ deploys wit for a wholly serious purpose and is a mark of exactly that free play between comedy and seriousness which sets Beatrice and Benidick apart from the rest of Messina.
Claudio addresses Hero directly only three times in the play, each time briefly and each time in highly public circumstances of formal acceptance or rejection, whereas Beatrice and Benedick’s extensive, private interchanges could not be more emphatic, and it is Benedick who is able to drop his role of jester and by ceasing to joke break the fellowship in order to love. Beatrice and Benedick appear to us to be ‘realists’ because they are not idealists. Hero and to a slightly lesser extent Claudio are idealists. Beatrice and Benedick express Messina’s unruly margins and Claudio and Hero express its most serious aspirations.
Claudio and Hero are idealists in the sense that they are fired by ideal visions of things, ‘ideal’ here meaning ‘the best imaginable’, the highest, the noblest, the purest. Idealism is the belief that what we really see around us is only the external appearance of something else, and that to get at it you must somehow have to get behind appearances. One of the play’s ironies is that it is the play’s ‘realists’ who will not take appearances at face value, but seek to get behind them. The jokes made by Beatrice and Benedick are sometimes blunt and crude, sometimes elaborate and self conscious.
Puns, similes, metaphors, and paradoxes are all brought into play in their continual game of mutual insults and it is this aggressive verbal battle which pushes Beatrice and Benedick to the foreground of the play. Beatrice stands out from the rest of the women in Messina because she is as good at this kind of verbal game as any of the men, for she has taken over an area of discourse which the bachelors of Messina, and Benedick in particular, usually treat as a male preserve, a witty and aggressive word play which is used to ward off the prospect of marriage.
It is only Beatrice who will openly claim her fair share of lines in a conversation with a man, and it is only Beatrice who makes their kind of bantering language completely her own. Moreover, she can do this without seeming merely to be copying the men because Beatrice shares Benedick’s contempt for love and marriage. Beatrice equates a husband with ‘horns’, on the one hand a phallic symbol, but on the other the sign of a cuckold. Beatrice’s social position gives her a freedom the other characters cannot enjoy.
She is not Hero’s sister and she is certainly an orphan. She has no parents in the play, and Leonato is her guardian. He calls her ‘niece’ a term which was used more broadly than it is now. She is related to Leonato and treated affectionately by him, but there is no suggestion that a dowry is one of her attractions and a dowry matters in the world of “Much Ado About Nothing” where Claudio coolly establishes Hero’s inheritance before Leonato signifies his approval of their troth.
Beatrice is just a step down the social ladder and there is no serious prospect of her becoming the Princess of Aragon. Unlike Claudio, who initiates what is negative for his own honour, Beatrice initiates what is positive to honour her friend. If we are to save ourselves and the play from the emptiness of gossip, we need to grasp the conventions of the code of honour which govern the society of Messina. “Much Ado About Nothing” is best considered as a problem play, whose disturbing ending dramatises the inadequacy of the ideology by which its ruling classes rule.
It is a comedy of social manners whose romance structure, with its improbable story, characters and denouement, makes deliberate play out of social tensions which in real life are not so readily resolved. It is an affectionate critique of upper-class manners, whose outwardness in matters of love and religion ran contrary to new expectations of the inner life that were becoming widely spread in Elizabethan England. For Beatrice and Benedick, their jokes become a means for them to resist the kind of love-relationship exemplified by Hero and Claudio.
In the end the ‘happy-ending’ which sees Hero married off to Claudio is one fraught with contradictions, for the conventional relationship founded on romantic love which they exemplify has been severely satirised by Shakespeare. Beatrice and Benedick are offered to us as an alternative to Hero and Claudio, because they have managed to deploy their jokes and their bantering not only as a defence against love, but also as a language of love in order to define their own relationship, which is a more equal one than either of them could have expected in Messina.
If the relationship between Beatrice and Benedick is not presented as an ideal, it is nonetheless seen as preferable to the fragility of an idealised, romantic love such as Claudio’s with its potential to collapse into loathing and disgust. And for Beatrice and Benedick to have wrested the language to their own ends in this way is in itself a cause for celebration.