Character Corner: Benedict and Beatrice: From Hate to Love

Hello! I apologize for the long silence, but I’ve been busy with work and taking care of my family, so I haven’t been able to work on many posts. However, I plan to work on some new content in my free(-ish) time, so hopefully I will be able to post more regularly.

To kickstart my new resolution to post regularly, I wanted to introduce a new category of blog posts called “Character Corner.” These posts will explore many different characters and will focus on their traits or their development (or both). While many of these posts will be scholarly in nature, I will do some fun ones every now and then to spice things up.

Now, for the first in the Character Corner series, we will be exploring the metamorphosis of Benedict and Beatrice, my two favorite Shakespearean characters from his comedy, Much Ado About Nothing.

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Much Ado About Nothing by William Shakespeare is one of his more well-known comedies. Within the play, Shakespeare weaves together two plotlines: one that is more comedic in nature and the other which is more tragic. Both plots are the stories of lovers. The tragic one follows Hero and Claudio, who desire to marry. Claudio is deceived into thinking that Hero has cheated on him and publicly denounces her at their wedding. After this false accusation, Hero pretends to be dead, and the plot is not resolved until the truth about Hero is revealed. Shakespeare’s weaving of the two is brilliant, so that the story becomes mainly a comedy, and both plots act as a foil for each other. The comedic plot follows Benedict and Beatrice, whose plot many would call an enemies-to-lovers storyline. Benedict and Beatrice begin the play by verbally battling with one another, constantly making jabs at each other, but their friends decide to trick them into falling in love. The Hero and Claudio plotline moves Benedict and Beatrice’s development as a couple forward, helping them to come to a proper understanding of themselves and how a relationship is supposed to work. They move from the anti-romantics to a couple with a solid foundation, whereas Claudio and Hero act as ultra-romantic characters whose ideals are both destroyed. Many consider Benedict and Beatrice to be the best, or at least, most enjoyable characters within the play because of their witty banter. Their character arc is one of the best in the play and provides a better understanding of what love between two people actually should look like. In Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing, the true, good, and beautiful is performed in the removal of masks and the acquisition of self-knowledge as seen in the development of the love between Benedick and Beatrice.

            In most Shakespearean comedies, masks or disguises are frequently used by the characters, performing the idea that people frequently try to hide themselves from others. This idea is very prominent in Much Ado About Nothing especially. Andrew Kern notes that it is “a play that’s all about wearing disguises” (Kern, Stanford, and Kern) There are two scenes where characters choose to disguise themselves: the masked ball in Act 2 and the last scene of Act 5. While the characters are fully aware of the physical mask they dawn, they often do not know of the “mental” masks they put on, an idea that will be expanded upon in the next segment. There is also the masking of truth, for the play revolves around three illusions. One is Hero’s supposed unfaithfulness; the other two illusions are that Benedict and Beatrice are pining for each other. While this trickery is helpful in bringing the two together, there are still illusions associated with it that must be dispelled in order for the love to come full circle. Benedict and Beatrice have masks of their own. Both put on masks of enmity towards each other; they pretend to want nothing to do with each other, whereas, in reality, one will barely talk for five seconds without bringing up the other. Beatrice has her own specific mask and a rather interesting one. In the beginning of the play, it is hinted that she had known Benedict well. In Act 2 scene 1, she tells the Prince a bit more of their history: “Indeed, my lord, he lent it me awhile, and I gave him use for it: a double heart for his single one” (Shakespeare, 2.1.246-247). This seems to indicate that Benedict and Beatrice had a relationship at one point, and that Beatrice is hiding the fact that she is still experiencing pain from the end of their relationship. William McCollom notes that Beatrice’s savage verbal jabs at Benedict “express a half-conscious anger over his past treatment of her” (“The Role of Wit”). While she is perhaps not fully aware of her anger, it does show that she is trying to conceal her pain. Considering the play is about disguises and wearing masks, it would make sense for both Beatrice and Benedict to be hiding something.

Another concept that the plot revolves around is self-knowledge. Many of the characters, especially Benedict and Beatrice, do not properly know themselves; therefore, they cannot properly know others. This idea is closely related to that of masks. Someone who does not know themselves has, essentially, masked their true nature from themselves and, by extension from others. A lack of self-knowledge causes problems, like disorder and incorrect actions. Firstly, it is far easier for a person to become disordered within themselves. They cannot see where their problems are and are therefore unable to fix them. Secondly, it prevents them from acting in a manner that is according to their being, for they do not know truth about themselves. Benedict and Beatrice must learn about themselves in order to be able to form a right relationship with each other. Dolora Cunningham notes, “For all their mighty wit, Benedick and Beatrice are not able by their own efforts to know themselves” (“Wonder and Love”). Benedict and Beatrice lack self-knowledge, and it is necessary for other characters to point it out to them. Once they obtain self-knowledge, they will be refashioned through the working of love and reason.

In Shakespearean comedies, love is generally used as a refashioning force, bringing about the happy ending. Of course, this love does not work on its own; reason also has a part to play. In the plays, love works within the characters’ and brings about an internal change which will be explored further in the development of Benedict and Beatrice. This makes love and reason necessary within the realm of Shakespeare, since it causes the characters to change, although in the case of Benedict and Beatrice, it works in a rather interesting manner. In one sense, love for someone causes one to desire to change for the better, so that one can better serve the other person. Therefore, love, reason, and self-knowledge work together in bringing about the metamorphosis of characters.

Benedict and Beatrice’s initial relationship is antagonistic; both enjoy verbally demolishing the other, yet they share many similar opinions. The play opens with a messenger proclaiming the return of Don Pedro’s victorious armies, and the first thing that Beatrice does is ask whether Benedict is returning while insulting him. The majority of the conversation with the messenger afterwards revolves around Beatrice and her opinion of Benedict. Many of the characters remark on the antagonistic nature of their relationship. Her uncle, Leonato, notes, “There is a kind of merry war betwixt Signor Benedict and her. They never meet but there’s a skirmish of wit between them” (1.1.49-51). In the gulling scenes, where they trick Benedict and Beatrice into falling in love, the other characters also note their rivalry, citing this as the reason that Benedict and Beatrice respectively won’t tell each other about their feelings (Shakespeare 2.3, 3.1). However, this does not mean Benedict and Beatrice are completely dissimilar. Both of them refuse to marry. 

Benedict’s reasons for being a bachelor generally relate to his fear of cuckoldry; that is, being cheated on by a wife. As the article, “Illusion and Metamorphosis in Much Ado About Nothing,” notes, “the theme of this comedy is honor . . . its spirit is less joyous than reflective, and . . . courtship, a peripheral concern, is presented as an imminent threat to masculine honor” (Mueschke and Mueschke). This idea of the importance and significance of honor is expanded upon within the rest of the article and throughout Stanford and Kern’s discussions of the play. In Renaissance thought, a man’s honor was closely connected, not only to his own character, but to his wife and her honor or chastity (Mueschke). If a man’s wife cheated on him, his honor would be stained (Mueschke). Benedict explains himself, saying, “But that I will have a recheat winded in my forehead, or hang my bugle in an invisible baldric, all women shall pardon me. Because I will not do them the wrong to mistrust any, I will do myself the right to trust none” (1.1.204-208). Essentially, Benedict is saying that he has no desire to be cheated upon, and since he does not wish to distrust a spouse, thereby insulting their honor, he will avoid relationships altogether. 

Beatrice’s decision not to marry is slightly more complicated. She has no desire to be bound to anyone. She believes she has yet to meet her match, and she thinks she does not desire to marry. She remarks, “Just, if he send me no husband, for the which blessing I am at him upon my knees every morning and evening” (2.1.23-25). She thanks God for her singleness, believing that she does not want to marry at all. However, this merely shows her lack of self-knowledge (Stanford and Kern, “Much Ado About Nothing: Act II”). Benedict and Beatrice may begin as antagonists, but both have similar opinions of marriage.

Since both Benedict and Beatrice stand so firmly against marriage, Don Pedro decides it would be amusing if they were to fall in love with one another and so brings about the pivot point in Benedict and Beatrice’s relationship. The two scenes where this pivot happens are typically known as the gulling scenes, for Don Pedro and his cronies trick Benedict and Beatrice into falling in love with each other. They begin their plot by telling Benedict that Beatrice is pining over him, and then they reverse the roles to gull Beatrice, telling her that Benedict is sick with the consumption because of his love for her. The characters decide to engage in this plot because they see that Benedict and Beatrice are a good match for each other. Don Pedro notes that both are honorable, and it will also help pass the time until the wedding. In act 2 scene 2 he remarks, “She were an excellent wife for Benedict. . . . I would gladly have it a match, and I doubt not but to fashion it” (310-324). Don Pedro sees their compatibility and their honor—for Benedict is one of his closest friends, and Pedro proposed to Beatrice himself, showing that he thinks highly of them—and decides that bringing them together would be fun and good for both of them (Stanford and Kern). Within the play itself, the two scenes where Benedict and Beatrice are gulled are essential. Firstly, the scheme provides a foil for Don John’s plot to break up Hero and Claudio. Don Pedro’s intends to bring people together, rather than to harm them. Secondly, these scenes are where Benedict and Beatrice gain a better knowledge of themselves. Both realize that they are proud and conceited, like the other characters point out. Cunningham writes, “Their movement form error and self-concern toward love’s truth is initiated by forces outside themselves.” Benedict and Beatrice’s change is a result of other characters and the circumstances in which they find themselves. Thirdly, because they learn this truth about themselves, they begin to make a conscious resolution to love each other. It is not purely emotional; reason too is involved. These scenes are also where Benedict and Beatrice are given permission, in a sense, to remove their masks. Some may say their change was too hasty, but it seems more likely that Benedict and Beatrice merely needed a push to get where they secretly wanted to be, which is what Don Pedro, whether intentionally or unintentionally, gives them.

Love, combined with truth and self-knowledge, causes a metamorphosis in Benedict and Beatrice, bringing them together. After they both are gulled, Benedict and Beatrice each give a soliloquy in which both decide to requite the other. They actively decide to change themselves as well, moving from pride to humility. In some ways, the way in which they relate to each other changes. Although they continue to war with words, they seem to spar in a more loving and less antagonistic manner. The greatest example of the changes within their relationship is found in act 4, after Hero has been accused. Benedict sees Beatrice crying and is moved to declare his love for her. The moment of truth occurs when Beatrice tells him, if he truly loves her, to “kill Claudio” (4.1.285). As Angelina Stanford and Andrew Kern note, Beatrice’s request is her asking where his allegiance lies. Does he love her, or will he put his friend first, acting in a manner that is inconsistent with love? Although reluctant, Benedict acquiesces, promising to challenge Claudio to a duel. Fortunately, this never occurs, but Benedict and Beatrice’s relationship continues to develop positively. Benedict shows his love for Beatrice in another way. He promises to marry her. This is very significant, considering that Benedict promised that he would never marry because of his fear of being cuckolded. He trusts Beatrice enough to be willing to wed her. Even within his private profession of love, Benedict shows a strong amount of love for Beatrice. Stanford and Kern point out that he is professing his love during all his fears being played out in Hero and Claudio’s relationship. Of course, Benedict does recognize that Hero is innocent because he uses his reason, but the profoundness of the moment must not be lost. Benedict and Beatrice are changed by love, self-knowledge, and reason, becoming lovers. 

In Benedict and Beatrice, a proper and ordered form of love is seen, for, as both say, they love each other, “No more than reason” (5.4.74; 5.4.78). This line appears in the last scene of the play, after the Hero/Claudio conflict has been resolved. Benedict asks which of the other two masked women is Beatrice, and, after she responds, he asks her if she loves him. Her response being: “No more than reason” (5.4.74). This shows a proper understanding of love. Beatrice is essentially saying that she does love Benedict but not in an excessive way, like an ultraromantic would (For example, Romeo and Juliet). She and Benedict display a balance in their love. They are not controlled by emotions alone, but by both reason and love. They show kindness and grace to one another, yet they retain their personal quirks. As Cunningham mentions, some may think that Benedict and Beatrice do not change within the play, but they clearly show signs of change, especially considering that they were both adamantly against marriage. While they were initially tricked into believing that the other loved them, the truth about the gulling comes out in the last scene, yet they still profess a love for one another. The love of Benedict and Beatrice is love as it ought to be. They act in accordance with the nature of their love, and it is a beautiful thing to see.

Since the other characters revealed Benedict and Beatrice’s faults to them, they achieved the ability to correct and change themselves to bring about harmony. Cunningham writes that “their movement form error and self-concern toward love’s truth is initiated by forces outside themselves.” Benedict and Beatrice’s pride got in the way of their relationship, and, once that pride is revealed to them, they work to correct it, so that they may become better people for one another. Through the working of Don Pedro and his associates, Benedict and Beatrice are able to know their faults. They also learn that they do indeed love each other, and that each of their fears about marriage were incorrect. The play illustrates the importance of knowing oneself very well. It brings to bear themes of truth, for self-knowledge is essentially, knowing the truth about oneself. Once they know the truth, Benedict and Beatrice reorient themselves and begin to act rightly. They act in humility. By gaining self-knowledge within the play, they illustrate the beauty of such a thing occurring. They show how important that is in forming relationships and in acting properly for oneself. Benedict and Beatrice harmonize themselves to become better parts of the community and to show love to one another. 

At the end of the play, all of Benedict and Beatrice’s masks are removed, allowing them to come together in truth. Throughout the play, Benedict and Beatrice wear masks, and none of them are completely removed until the end of the play. Up until then, neither of them outright told anyone else about their feelings for each other. The moment where Benedict and Beatrice profess their love for each other after Hero’s humiliation was merely a private profession. It is not until the final scene of the play that they make a public profession of love. Even then, they require others to force them to take the masks off. After Beatrice and Benedict proclaim that they love one another “no more than reason,” Hero reveals a poem for Benedict from Beatrice, and Claudio reveals Benedicts poem about Beatrice, forcing them to publicly acknowledge that they are now lovers, although they are reasonable ones (5.4.74; 5.4.78). Benedict exclaims, “A miracle! Here’s our own hands against our hearts. Come, I will have thee. But by this light, I take thee for pity” (5.4.91-93). While they continue to be themselves and merrily war with one another, they do it in love. They are humbler and better versions of themselves, who are finally able to reveal themselves

The harmonious love of Benedict and Beatrice performs truth, goodness, and beauty. While some may argue that Benedict and Beatrice’s mode of wooing is false, evil, and grotesque, their wittiness should be instead considered as playfulness. It is part of their natures to be witty, for they are knowledgeable about words and language and how to use them. Benedict is also a man of war, not a romantic lover, so his mode of wooing relates to his mode of being and action. He does not use flowery speech but instead spars with words, which is why his poem to Beatrice is terrible, which is noted in Stanford and Kern’s discussion. He is acting according to his nature, as is Beatrice. They are two of the most dynamic characters in the play, and, therefore, show the ins and outs of human nature. Even though their main mode of speaking is banter, it does not indicate they do not love each other. They also show the marrying of love and reason, not because one is more loving and the other more reasonable, but because both characters love each other, but within the bounds of reason. They do not show excessive love, but a balanced love, founded upon mutual respect. They perform loving rightly, and their development from antagonists to lovers is a beautiful thing to watch. It shows active change from pride to humility because they are told where they are wrong, and they are open to change. There is an obvious inward character development.

Benedict and Beatrice’s true, good, and beautiful love is achieved once they remove their masks and understand themselves. Masks are a common motif in Shakespeare. The physical masks indicate the internal masks. The characters disguise themselves from everyone else, and they are also disguised from themselves. Benedict and Beatrice are no exception. Both hid what they think and feel about each other from everyone else, and it seems that they may not even know it themselves. They lack self-knowledge, and through the action of the play, they come to know their own hearts. The gulling scenes provide the pivot point for Benedict and Beatrice’s relationship. They begin with a sort of rivalry, verbally warring with one another. Both are against marriage, all but vowing to remain bachelors. When Don Pedro and his accomplices gull them, they learn what their faults are, and work to correct them. Benedict and Beatrice both show their change too. The profess their love for one another in private, and Benedict shows that he is willing to place Beatrice before his former friends  by challenging because of his love for her and his understanding of the truth of what Claudio has done to Hero. At the end of the play, both profess that they love each other reasonably, but their public profession is not made complete without the help of Hero and Claudio. They vow to marry each other and exhibit a love based upon reason and self-knowledge. The story of Benedict and Beatrice’s journey from discord to harmony, from ignorance to knowledge, and from fear to trust is something that should be enjoyed through the ages.

Bibliography

Cunningham, Dolora G. “Wonder and Love in the Romantic Comedies.” Shakespeare Quarterly 35, no. 3 (1984): 262–266.

Kern, David, Angelina Stanford, and Andrew Kern. “Much Ado About Nothing: Act I | Circe Institute.” Circe Institute. Accessed October 19, 2020. https://www.circeinstitute.org/podcast/much-ado-about-nothing-act-i.

McCollom, William. “The Role of Wit in Much Ado About Nothing on JSTOR.” Accessed November 3, 2020. https://www.jstor.org/stable/2868217.

Mueschke, Paul, and Miriam Mueschke. “Illusion and Metamorphosis in Much Ado about Nothing on JSTOR.” Accessed November 3, 2020. https://www.jstor.org/stable/2868063.

Stanford, Angelina, and Andrew Kern. “Much Ado About Nothing: Act II.” The Play’s the Thing, n.d.

———. “Much Ado About Nothing: Act 3.” The Play’s the Thing, n.d.

———. “Much Ado About Nothing: Act IV.” The Play’s the Thing, n.d.

———. “Much Ado About Nothing: Act V.” The Play’s the Thing, n.d.

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