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.