Table of Contents
I The Benedick and Beatrice Plot
I.1. Characterising Beatrice
I.2. Characterising Benedick
II Their merry war
III Benedick and Beatrice’s battle of wits as the main plot of Much Ado About Nothing?
Much Ado About Nothing is one of Shakespeare’s early tragic comedies. Written in 1598/99, the play was published in quartos only one year later. In this paper I will tackle a very much-discussed issue, that critics still cannot unanimously agree on. The contrast plot in Much Ado is elaborated in such detail and is thematically so important to the play’s effect on readers and spectators, that the question arises, whether the said-to-be subplot probably functions as the secret main plot in the play.
In chapter one, I will start outlining the most important aspects of the context, that the Benedick-Beatrice plot is embedded into. Additionally, I will characterise the two devotees Benedick and Beatrice as a first step to learn more about their behaviour, their thinking and their importance to the plot. The characterisation will only focus on relevant facts, which contribute to the analysis of their witty battles.
Chapter 2 deals with the contributions of both Benedick and Beatrice, which they take in their merry war. With the help of text passages, important parts of their witty battles will be analysed. Furthermore, quotations of literary critics committed to the play will be used to examine the motives of both competitors.
Finally, the third chapter will be concerned with the central question of this paper. Asking whether Benedick and Beatrice’s battle of wits can be taken as the main plot of Much Ado About Nothing, this section studies the standpoints of various critics
As Much Ado About Nothing was written as a play to be performed, and is also read as a literary work, I will facilitate speaking about its addressees. Whenever I mention “readers”, both “readers” at home and “spectators” in the theatre are thought of.
I The Benedick and Beatrice Plot
The two characters waging the battle of wits are Beatrice, the niece of Leonato, a wealthy governor of Messina and Benedick, a lord who recently returned from fighting as a soldier. They were once going out with each other, but the circumstances under which they came together remain highly unclear. All that is revealed, can be read between the lines of rough hints in Beatrice’s speech:
“[…] in our last conflict, four of his five wits went halting off, and now is the whole man govern’d with one, so that if he have wit enough to keep himself warm, let him bear it for a difference between himself and his horse[…]”(I.1, 25, 1-4)
and “[…] he wears his faith but as the fashion of his hat, it ever changes with the next block.”(I.1, 25, 9-11) Later she gives away: “Indeed my Lord, he lent it [his heart] me awhile, and I gave him use for it, a double heart for his single one, marry once before he won it of me, with false dice, therefore your Grace may well say I have lost it”(II.1, 43, 32ff).
Since the moment that the two meet in the play, they constantly compete and try to beat the other with clever remarks and verbal insults.
To work out the key aspects of their witty battles, I will start characterizing both Benedick and Beatrice to outline their personality.
Beatrice is a very intelligent and energetic woman of about thirty years. She is a close friend of her cousin Hero, Leonato’s daughter. Lady Beatrice is unmarried, but seems to be looking for a husband. Nevertheless, she refused to marry because she has not found the perfect, equal partner yet. In addition, she is unwilling to give up her liberty and submit to a controlling husband, who would leave her little of her independence she enjoys now. She understands a lot about social pressure and virtues that expect certain traditional behaviour of male and female individuals and therefore she refuses to submit to these for the sake of it. Gifted with cleverness and wit she uses puns and jokes to provoke her male counter-part Benedick. Lady Beatrice is a good example of Shakespeare’s strong female characters, which are extraordinarily independent and courageous for their time.
Nevertheless, as she analyses herself a lot and understands a lot about herself. She admits her loneliness after Claudio’s and Hero’s engagement. “Good lord for alliance: thus goes every one to the world but I, and I am sun-burnt, I may sit in a corner and cry, heigh ho for a husband.” (II.1, 45, 4-6) This is one of her strengths, which are made public as Shakespeare has her speak in soliloquy repeatedly. Soliloquising, both Benedick and Beatrice reveal a lot about their thinking. Thus, audience and readers learn about their mental change in the play which is necessary for the understanding of the further development in the plot.
I.2. Characterising: Benedick
Benedick has an ironic sense of himself. Although he is a passionate woman-hater, his dislike is not of women but of their threat to men’s freedom. There is nothing he fears more than loosing authority and force in favour of a woman. Therefore, he portrays himself as a devout loner. Nevertheless, in his heart, he is longing to desire and marry, but he does not admit this to himself . His mind tells him that there are reasons sound enough to better stay on his own. His worst-case scenario is to become a henpecked husband, who makes himself laughed at for turning from hero into coward. At some parts his behaviour shows that his antiromantic posture is inauthentic and does not mirror his inner belief. Namely, Benedick protests too excessively. Ever since Claudio spoke to him of his desire to marry, Benedick tried to ridicule his feelings and plans:
Claudio: “In mine eye, she is the sweetest Lady that ever I look’d on.”
Benedick:” I can see yet without spectacles, and I see no such matter: there’s her cousin, and she were not possess’d with a fury, exceeds her as much in beauty, as the first of May doth the last of December: but I hope you have no intent to turn husband, have you?”
After Claudio confirmed, he cannot believe it and replies: “Is’t come to this?”(I.1, 28, 20-24)
Speaking to himself, he thinks about Claudio: “I do much wonder, that one man seeing how much another man is a fool, when he dedicates his behaviour to love, will after he hath laugh’d at such shallow follies in others, become the argument of his own scorn, by falling in love, and such a man is Claudio.” He continues: “May I be so converted and see with these eyes? I cannot tell, I think not.”(II.3, 49)
However, when he realizes that he has become a lover, he twists what he boasted with to everyone before: never be married to a woman. After overhearing the conversation of Don Pedro, Claudio and Leonato, he concludes, that if she loves him, her love consequently must be requited: ”it seems her affections have their full bent: love me? Why it must be requited: I hear how I am censur’d, they say I will bear myself proudly, if I perceive the love come from her.” (II.3, 55, 23-26) As the speech continues, he follows his need to justify his change of mind saying: “I have railed so long against marriage: but doth not the appetite alter?” His main argument to approve marriage now is “The world must be peopled.” Although this never really worried him before, he now trivializes and makes social moral his own. He quickly twists his posture: “When I said I would die a bachelor, I did not think I should live till I were married”. (II.3, 56, 4-9) Although giving his speech a good sense of humour with this clever twist, Benedick here is serious about what he says and possibly does not fully realize the comic of his words. Nevertheless, the soliloquy promotes Benedick from social critic to self-critic. As McCollom puts it, he is now ready to appreciate the maxime of La Rochefocauld: “C’est une grande folie de vouloir etre sage tout seul.” He points out that this is a crucial moment in the play. This scene marks the key turning point not only for Benedick’s posture, but also as the initiation of the love-story between him and Beatrice. Although they deeply and honestly fall in love with each other, they still keep up some benign antagonism and continue their witty remarks for each other. Addressing Beatrice, Benedick remarks “Suffer love! A good epithet, I do suffer love indeed, for I love thee against my will.[…] Thou and I are too wise to woo peaceably” (V.2, 101, 11-16). This is what guarantees the freshness and balance that their relationship is so special for, because they accept to constantly redefine themselves and each other.
 McCollom, William G.(1969), The Role of Wit in Much Ado About Nothing in: Walter R. Davis (ed.), Twentieth century interpretations of Much Ado About Nothing , London: Prentice-Hall, 75.