Much Ado About Wit
The best part of Much Ado About Nothing is, and always will be, the repartee between Benedick and Beatrice. Sure, the main plot line is Hero’s marriage to Claudio and Don John’s plan to discredit her and humiliate his brother, but readers and audiences crave to witness the “merry war betwixt Signor Benedick and [Beatrice]” since the two “never meet but there’s a skirmish of wit between them” (1.1.58-60). Benedick and Beatrice are entertainment even for the other characters in the story. Benedick’s friends can’t help but egg him on, and likewise Beatrice’s cousin can’t help but egg her on. Their strong opinions combine with their quick, intelligent wit to create a verbal sparring match others can’t help be fascinated by. It is their partnership in such a dance that inspires Don Pedro to match them while he bides time until Hero’s wedding (2.1.335-341).
Their banter stems in part from a seemingly aggressive dislike of each other and in part from being too similar to each other in temperament and opinion. Benedick declares “he would [he] could find in [his] heart that [he] had not a hard heart, for truly [he] love[s] none” (1.1.124-125), and Beatrice readily agrees that she “thank[s] God and [her] cold blood [she] is of [Benedick’s] humor for that” (1.1.128-129). Finding they share an opinion, the two turn their energies to assuring the other of the impossibility of there being one to love them (1.1.131-143).
In further mockery of events to come later in the play, both Beatrice and Benedick emphasize their obstinate views against love and marriage to their respective companions. Benedick is resolute in his bachelorhood and hatred of romantic relationships (1.1.216-267), making dramatic pronouncements to his friends what they should do if he ever is in love. Likewise, Beatrice “cannot endure to hear tell of a husband” and “mocks all her wooers out of suit” (2.1.322-323). Like Benedick, Beatrice pronounces dramatic scenarios to highlight her refutation to marry, insisting she will not do so “till God make men of some other metal than earth” (2.1.52-53). It is hardly surprising that their friends therefore see the combative duo as a challenge to overcome. For sport they decide to “undertake […] to bring Signor Benedick and the Lady Beatrice into a mountain of affection th’one with th’other” (2.1.336-339), conspiring to fashion the match (2.1.339-341).
As the play continues they successfully do just that; however, as the match is engineered the banter between Beatrice and Benedick changes. It becomes more polite and measured. Their exchange when Hero is dishonored bears none of the sting of their previous encounters, though each individual experiences a bitterness in the situation—Beatrice at not being able to challenge Claudio for his accusation and the subsequent shame it causes, and Benedick for losing either his love or his friend. Beatrice and Benedick tentatively speak to each other more tenderly, still engaging in wordplay but wordplay without the venom (4.1.261-332). Despite the serious nature of this exchange, their following conversation is more lighthearted and even flirtatious, though the backdrop remains unchanged. Beatrice resembles more of the person she is at the beginning of the play when she answers Benedick, “’Then’ is spoken; fare you well now” (5.2.44) after he tells her to, “stay but till then” (5.2.43). They are more comfortable in their flirtatious wordplay, and together conclude that they are “too wise to woo peaceably” (5.2.67).
It is not until the final scene, when Beatrice and Benedick indirectly discover they’ve been duped, that hints of their former contention appear layered in their words to each other. Though each claims no romantic attachment to the other, the conspirators reveal secret notes addressed to the other that force Beatrice and Benedick to recognize their “own hands against [their] hearts” (5.4.91-92), however seemingly begrudgingly that may be. Even with the evidence of their emotions before them Beatrice and Benedick cannot resist throwing verbal jabs at each other. Benedick insists he will take Beatrice “for pity” (5.4.92-93), while Beatrice says she will “yield upon great persuasion—and partly to save [his] life, for [she] was told [he was] in a consumption” (5.2.95-96). For a brief moment the banter between Beatrice and Benedick imitates the nature of their banter at the beginning of the play and it is easy to imagine that it will be a mainstay of their life together. While it took friends bringing them together by duplicitous means, Beatrice and Benedick have always and will always be attracted to each other’s wit just as audiences continue to be.