The savage bull may, but if ever the sensible Benedick bear it, pluck off the bull’s horns and set them in my forehead, and let me be vilely painted, and in such great letters as they write ‘Here is good horse to hire’ let them signify under my sign ‘Here you may see Benedick, the married man.’
Benedick delivers this speech to Claudio and Don Pedro. Don Pedro has just quoted an old adage about even the wildest of people eventually calming down enough to submit to love and marriage, suggesting that in time even a savage bull will bear the yoke of a woman’s will. Benedick adamantly refuses to believe this commonplace and decides to mock it. The “sensible” Benedick means the rational Benedick, a person too intelligent to yield to the irrational ways of love. Benedick imagines a fantastical scene here, with horns clapped on his head and writing practically branded into his forehead. It was traditional in the Renaissance to imagine that cuckolds—men whose wives committed adultery—had horns on their heads. Benedick’s evocation of this image suggests that any woman he marries is sure to cheat on him. Claudio and Don Pedro continue to tease Benedick about the bull imagery throughout the play.
What should I do with him—dress him in my apparel and make him my waiting gentlewoman? He that hath a beard is more than a youth, and he that hath no beard is less than a man; and he that is more than a youth is not for me, and he that is less than a man, I am not for him.
These lines constitute Beatrice’s witty explanation for why she must remain an unmarried woman and eventually an old maid: there is no man who would be a perfect match for her. Those who possess no facial hair are not manly enough to satisfy her desires, whereas those who do possess beards are not youthful enough for her. This conundrum is not particular to Beatrice. In Renaissance literature and culture, particularly in Shakespeare, youths on the cusp of manhood are often the most coveted objects of sexual desire.
Although Beatrice jokes that she would dress up a beardless youth as a woman, there is a hidden double meaning here: in Shakespeare’s time, the actor playing Beatrice would have been doing exactly that, since all female roles were played by prepubescent boys until the late seventeenth century. Indeed, the beardless adolescent had a special allure that provoked the desires of both men and woman on the Elizabethan stage. Beatrice’s desire for a man who is caught between youth and maturity was in fact the sexual ideal at the time. The plot of the play eventually toys with her paradoxical sentiments for a man both with and without a beard: during the course of the play, Benedick will shave his beard once he falls in love with her.
They say the lady is fair. ‘Tis a truth, I can bear them witness. And virtuous—’tis so, I cannot reprove it. And wise, but for loving me. By my troth, it is no addition to her wit—nor no great argument of her folly, for I will be horribly in love with her.
Benedick has just overheard Claudio, Leonato, and Don Pedro discussing Beatrice’s fabricated love for him. Alone on the stage, he ponders this news and concludes that the best thing for him to do is to return this love: “for I will be horribly in love with her” (II.iii.208). This line produces a comical effect, as it seems preposterous that someone would fall “horribly” in love with another person after simply weighing that person’s virtues. The choice of the word “horribly” accentuates the comic aspects of Benedick’s decision. Not only does he return her love, but he does so to the point of overthrowing her, and all others in his midst, with love. The choice of “horribly” could also echo a bit of the merry war Beatrice and Benedick have been fighting with their wits. There has always existed an element of competition between them. It is not enough for Benedick to reciprocate Beatrice’s passions; he must outdo them, perhaps in order to unseat her and win the competition. The actor playing Benedick has a number of choices in performing this soliloquy: he can reveal that he has always been in love with Beatrice but is in denial about his true feelings and therefore must go through the motions of weighing the pros and cons of loving her in a rational manner. Or he can simply treat this moment as one more parry in the thrusts and blows of their “merry war” and conclude that the only way to win is to surpass her, even in love.
O Hero! What a Hero hadst thou been
If half thy outward graces had been placed
About thy thoughts and counsels of thy heart!
But fare thee well, most foul, most fair, farewell
Thou pure impiety and impious purity.
For thee I’ll lock up all the gates of love,
And on my eyelids shall conjecture hang
To turn all beauty into thoughts of harm,
And never shall it more be gracious.
Claudio has just openly rebuked Hero at their wedding ceremony, throwing her back to Leonato, her father. He believes that she has not only been unfaithful to him but has lost her virginity, and therefore her purity and innocence, to someone else before her marriage. Claudio’s belief is the result of Don John’s evil plot to deceive him and make him lose Don Pedro’s goodwill. These lines demonstrate Shakespeare’s ability to fill a speech with double meanings and wordplay through repetition. For instance, “Hero” appears twice in the first line, changing meaning the second time. The first time, Claudio addresses his former beloved directly. The second time, Claudio compares “Hero” to an ideal conqueror of his heart, as classical heroes conquered and won great battles. Yet Hero has lost her heroic qualities. “Fare thee well most foul, most fair, farewell” plays with repetition and opposites: the sound of the word “fair” is repeated three times in the space of one line, underscoring Claudio’s despair at discovering that Hero’s outward beauty or fairness conceals a “foul” spirit, as he thinks.
There might also be some play on the double meanings of “fair”—as beautiful, and as balanced and true. In Claudio’s eyes, Hero is not only no longer “fair,” meaning beautiful (she is “foul”), but she is also no longer “fair,” meaning truthful, but is its opposite, false or dissembling. Both the combination of “fair” and “foul” in the same line and “pure impiety and impious purity” in the following line demonstrate a rhetorical technique Shakespeare is famous for using in his plays: antithesis, or the combining of paradoxical opposites in one line for emphasis. Moments in which characters spout antitheses usually occur at the height of passion. For Claudio to use these particular opposites to describe his frustration with Hero’s seemingly fair exterior and false and foul interior reveals that he is livid with rage and driven to despair.
Dost thou not suspect my place? Dost thou not suspect my years? O that he were here to write me down an ass! But masters, remember that I am an ass. Though it be not written down, yet forget not that I am an ass. No, thou villain, thou art full of piety, as shall be proved upon thee by good witness. I am a wise fellow, and which is more, an officer, and which is more, a householder, and which is more, as pretty a piece of flesh as any is in Messina, and one that knows the law, go to . . . and one that hath two gowns, and everything handsome about him. Bring him away. O that I had been writ down an ass! (IV.ii.67–78)
Dogberry is the constable and leader of the town night watch in Messina, the town where the action of the play takes place. Despite his comedic substitutions of incorrect words for similar-sounding correct words, Dogberry does succeed in apprehending Conrad and Borachio and unraveling Don John’s plot to deceive Claudio and ruin Hero. At this moment, he has caught Borachio and brought him before the sexton to record the events of the evening. Binding the villains together, Dogberry calls Conrad a “naughty varlet” (IV.ii.65). Conrad has angrily responded to Dogberry with “Away, you are an ass, you are an ass” (IV.ii.66). Dogberry, infuriated that anyone should insult him, delivers this indignant comic speech filled with verbal misuse, saying “suspect” instead of “respect” and “piety” instead of “impiety.” Dogberry’s determined insistence that he be “writ down an ass” is comical, because instead of asking that the sexton note that Conrad has insulted Dogberry, Dogberry contributes to his own slander by insisting that the sexton put in writing that Dogberry is “an ass.” Dogberry is most offended by Conrad’s accusation because the constable interprets Conrad’s rudeness as a class criticism, which it most likely is. Dogberry may not be a nobleman, but he is a good, law-abiding citizen, he owns his own house, and he possesses two costly pieces of apparel (two gowns), which signifies that though he does not belong to the court, he is part of the emergent bourgeoisie. He is right to feel insulted by the ill-behaved noble Conrad’s invective. Though Dogberry’s poor command of the English language results in hilarity, there is nothing poor or evil about him.