Benedick and Beatrice: the 'merry war' of courtship

Penny Gay sees Benedick and Beatrice as the witty stars of a Shakespearean rom-com. She explores both their modernity and their conformity to traditional gender roles and marriage.

Much Ado About Nothing features the most obviously modern of Shakespeare’s courting couples, Beatrice and Benedick. They are the direct ancestors of the ‘rom-com’ couple – the staple of Hollywood comedies since (at least) the 1930s heyday of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, and of television series like the 1990s’ Friends or 1980s’ Moonlighting, where the audience is kept intrigued by the unresolved sexual tension between the sparring, apparently unsuited couple. There is no known source for Beatrice and Benedick and their unconventional courtship, whereas Shakespeare used identifiable literary sources for the more serious Claudio and Hero story. Despite there being some examples of witty banter between young men and women in earlier Shakespeare plays (The Taming of the Shrew, Love’s Labour’s Lost) and in some other 16th-century texts, Beatrice and Benedick are definitively new: they refuse to abide by the conventions of genteel decorum, they know their own minds (or think they do), they are not particularly respectful of authority (unlike the younger couple Claudio and Hero) and they are the couple who talk, and bicker, endlessly – thus displaying to each other their intellectual energy and their compatibility. Perhaps their banter is also a type of self-defence against the appearance of any emotional vulnerability. Here is their extraordinary opening dialogue, full of cheerful insults:

BEATRICE I wonder that you should still be talking, Signor Benedick. Nobody
marks you.

BENEDICK What, my dear Lady Disdain! Are you yet living? (1.1.86–88)

Shakespeare's Collected Poems, 1640

Shakespeare's Collected Poems, 1640

‘Let but Beatrice and Benedicke be seene’: In his tribute to Shakespeare, Leonard Digges reveals that audiences preferred the unconventional pair, even in 1640.

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What makes these lines and this attitude stand out is that they are spoken in a large assembly onstage of the community in which this story will take place. This is a very precisely delineated social group, with its hierarchies, its gentry and servants, its young people and elders and its surrounding village folk, set (notionally) in the Sicilian city of Messina. More to the point is that the whole play takes place in the governor Leonato’s great house and garden, where the military visitors of Don Pedro’s army arrive in Act 1, Scene 1 for a short period of rest and recreation. This very specific social situation can be set in any time and place where there is a similar situation: the excitement of the soldiers arriving in a large (bored?) household of old men and young women; the anticipation of flirtation and more serious courtship. The characters do not meet by chance; they are part of a wider, familiar community. There is a backstory to Beatrice and Benedick’s relationship, a suggestion that they have known each other for a long time, and that they were once, perhaps, lovers: ‘Marry, once before he won it [her heart] of me, with false dice,’ says Beatrice (2.1.211). This is a rich and complex set-up for the developments that follow, which depend upon the contrast between the two courting couples: the conventional pair Claudio and Hero (who never speak to each other onstage before the disastrous confrontation of Act 4, Scene 1’s wedding scene), and the gloriously unconventional talkers Beatrice and Benedick.

Friendship album of Gervasius Fabricius zu Klesheim

Friendship Album of Gervasius Fabricius zu Klesheim

Feasting and flirting while two figures hide in the arbour: a miniature painting from Fabricius’ friendship album, c. 1595–1637.

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Language and decorum

At all points, we see Beatrice and Benedick’s linguistic vitality. For example, in Act 1, Scene 1 Beatrice’s opening enquiry of the Messenger is bizarre to the point of indecorum: ‘I pray you, how many hath he killed and eaten in these wars? But how many hath he killed? For indeed, I promised to eat all of his killing’ (1.1.31–33). Leonato has to intervene, explaining that she’s engaged in ‘a kind of merry war’ with Benedick: ‘they never meet but there’s a skirmish of wit between them’ (1.1.45–47). His military metaphors can be seen as an attempt to normalise Beatrice’s behaviour by referring to a standard ‘masculine’ activity. Men are soldiers, women – what? Domesticated bodies, but Beatrice isn’t having that; she’d rather be ‘where the bachelors sit’ (2.1.37).

Both declare that they won’t marry – since, implicitly, that is to behave ‘normally’, to submit to the patriarchal myth and deny their determined individuality. They are thus set up for the fall which both the theatre audience and the onstage audience to their outrageous behaviour are waiting for.

Burton’s Anatomy of Melancholy, 1628

Burton’s Anatomy of Melancholy, 1628

Robert Burton sees Benedick and Beatrice as the supreme example of a couple who continually disagree but should be pushed into marriage.

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Language and truth-telling

The two ‘gulling’ scenes, Act 2, Scene 3 and Act 3, Scene 1, are very different. Benedick, in stand-up monologues and clown-like pratfalls and physical gags as he tries to hide and overhear his friends’ staged discussion, endears himself to the audience even as his self-assurance is punctured. His last speech is as long and ultimately as cocky as his first in this scene – yet they come to very different conclusions. The men’s amateur performance of an improvised riff on ‘Did you know Beatrice is madly in love with Benedick?’ has forced him into a new understanding of himself; and he declares to the audience, in his characteristic extravagant manner, ‘I will be horribly in love with her … Shall quips and sentences, and these paper bullets of the brain, awe a man from the career of his humour? No, the world must be peopled!’ (2.3.235–42)

1901 edition of Anna Jameson's Shakespeare's Heroines, illustrated by Robert Anning Bell

1901 edition of Anna Jameson's Shakespeare's Heroines

Bell’s illustration of Beatrice appears in Anna Jameson’s chapter on ‘Characters of Intellect’.

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Beatrice, by contrast, is given much less opportunity for humour in the equivalent scene in which she overhears her friends’ performance of concern. The whole scene is in blank verse – a more serious and emotional style than Benedick’s freewheeling prose; and her final soliloquy in this scene constitutes the last 10 lines of a Shakespearean sonnet – thus signalling her interior emotional life. It is a far cry from witty banter:

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. (3.1.107–16)

Benedick continues to appear as a clownish figure in Act 3, Scene 2, aping the conventional lover in his fashionable clothes and haircut (and male fragrance!). Beatrice, similarly, develops a psychosomatic cold in Act 3, Scene 4, and is teased by her girlfriends. It looks as though their separate realisations that they are in love have baffled them, and they don’t know how to behave in this new situation. But there is at least an unacknowledged bond now binding them.

King Charles I's copy of Shakespeare

King Charles I's copy of Shakespeare

‘Bennedike & Betrice’: King Charles notes his favourite comic characters in this 1632 edition of Shakespeare’s plays.

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In the ‘church scene’ (Act 4, Scene 1), after the horrendous scene of the public breakdown of the wedding between Claudio and Hero, where he speaks so vilely to her that she is left for dead, Beatrice and Benedick are finally alone together on stage, for the first time in the play. The dialogue that then takes place is a dramatic scene between an adult woman and man unmatched in any previous writing – at once a love scene and a spelling-out of the unavoidable imperatives of gender as they were at that time formulated: men must fight, and women must weep. ‘Oh God that I were a man! I would eat his heart in the marketplace,’ cries Beatrice (4.1.295) – but it is Benedick who goes off to challenge Claudio. There doesn’t seem to be any alternative.

Rapier, c. 1600

Rapier, c. 1600

‘Kill Claudio’: Benedick prepares to exchange sharp words for a real weapon when he challenges Claudio.

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‘Man is a giddy thing’ (5.2.104)

After the tension of Act 4, Scene 1, the audience needs reassurance that this relationship that we’ve put faith in as the new and better model is actually going to work. Beatrice and Benedick have another scene in which they are briefly alone together on stage. Their bantering and mutual insulting is now resumed, but it is clearly affectionate:

BENEDICK … And, I pray thee, now tell me, for which of my bad parts didst
thou first fall in love with me?

BEATRICE For them all together, which maintained so politic a state of evil
that they will not admit any good part to intermingle with them.
But for which of my good parts did you first suffer love for me?

BENEDICK ‘Suffer love’, a good epithet. I do suffer love indeed, for I love
thee against my will.

BEATRICE In spite of your heart, I think. Alas, poor heart; if you spite it for
my sake, I will spite it for yours, for I will never love that which my
friend hates.

BENEDICK Thou and I are too wise to woo peaceably. (5.2.44–54)

We expect them to kiss at the end of this scene, but they are interrupted by Ursula with the good news of Hero’s proven innocence. Thus in classic rom-com fashion, their final encounter, in Act 5, Scene 4 – mirroring the public gathering of the play’s opening scene – continues the repartee their onstage audience expects of them (and it is only at this point that they find out their more conventional friends have duped them). With line 96, ‘Peace, I will stop your mouth’ we finally get the kiss that we’ve been waiting for. But its connotation is ambiguous: Beatrice’s mouth is literally stopped – she doesn’t say a word after this. Benedick talks on to the play’s end, very much taking his place as the newly dominant male – no longer an outsider, or the Prince’s clown, but the potential father-figure: ordering dancing (despite Leonato’s objection), telling the Prince to ‘get thee a wife’ (5.4.122), and saying he (not Don Pedro) will devise ‘brave punishments’ (5.4.128) for Don John. Much depends on the mute reactions of Beatrice during these final moments: can she, like Katherina in The Taming of the Shrew, indicate that she retains her reservations about the way men run things?

Italian treatise on dance, 1602

Italian treatise on dance, 1602

Two couples join in a dance, but there’s still a hint of violence with the rapiers hanging at the men’s sides.

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Romantic comedy is essentially a conservative form: it always ends with marriage, and the status quo, though perhaps somewhat tarnished, is reaffirmed. The community may have learnt a little, but nothing has really changed. It has triumphantly incorporated the unconventional energy of rebellious figures like Beatrice and Benedick into its fabric, and it looks forward to replicating itself in the next generation: ‘The world must be peopled!’

  • Penny Gay
  • Penny Gay is Professor Emerita in English and Drama at the University of Sydney, and a Fellow of the Australian Academy of the Humanities. She has published extensively on Shakespeare, particularly on the comedies. Her book As She Likes It: Shakespeare’s Unruly Women was published in 1994, and The Cambridge Introduction to Shakespeare’s Comedies in 2008. She has also written a substantial new Introduction to the New Cambridge Shakespeare Twelfth Night. Her ongoing research interest is in the performance history, both historical and contemporary, of Shakespeare and other English drama, particularly as regards women’s roles.

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