[A]nd 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.”
In the Italian town of Messina, the wealthy and kindly Leonato prepares to welcome home some soldier friends who are returning from a battle. These friends include Don Pedro of Aragon, a highly respected nobleman, and a brave young soldier named Claudio, who has won much honor in the fighting. Leonato’s young daughter, Hero, and her cousin, Beatrice, accompany him. Beatrice asks about the health of another soldier in Don Pedro’s army, a man named Signor Benedick. Beatrice cleverly mocks and insults Benedick. A messenger from Don Pedro defends Benedick as an honorable and virtuous man, but Leonato explains that Beatrice and Benedick carry on a “merry war” of wits with one another, trading jibes whenever they meet. Beatrice confirms this statement, noting that in their most recent conflict, “four of his five wits went halting off, and now is the whole man governed with one” (I.i.52–54).
Don Pedro arrives at Leonato’s house with his two friends, Claudio and Benedick, and they are joyfully welcomed. Also accompanying Don Pedro is his quiet, sullen, illegitimate brother, Don John “the Bastard,” with whom Don Pedro has recently become friendly after a period of mutual hostility. While Leonato and Don Pedro have a private talk, Beatrice and Benedick take up their war of wits. In an extremely fast-paced exchange of barbs, they insult one another’s looks, intelligence, and personality. When Benedick tells Beatrice proudly that he has never loved a woman and never will, Beatrice responds that women everywhere ought to rejoice.
Don Pedro tells Benedick, Claudio, and Don John that Leonato has invited them all to stay with him for a month, and that Don Pedro has accepted. Everyone goes off together except Claudio and Benedick. Claudio shyly asks Benedick what he thinks of Hero, announcing that he has fallen in love with her. Benedick jokingly plays down Hero’s beauty, teasing Claudio for thinking about becoming a tame husband. But when Don Pedro returns to look for his friends, Benedick tells him Claudio’s secret, and Don Pedro approves highly of the match. Since Claudio is shy and Leonato is Don Pedro’s close friend, Don Pedro proposes a trick: at the costume ball to be held that night, Don Pedro will disguise himself as Claudio and declare his love to Hero. He will then talk with Leonato, her father, which should enable Claudio to win Hero without difficulty. Full of plans and excitement, the three friends head off to get ready for the ball.Read a translation of Act I, scene i →
This opening scene introduces all of the major characters, as well as the play’s setting—Leonato’s welcoming, friendly house in Messina. Don Pedro and the others are just returning from a war in which they have been victorious, seemingly setting the stage for a relaxed, happy comedy in which the main characters fall in love and have fun together. While the play opens with a strong feeling of joy and calm, the harmony of Messina is certainly to be disturbed later on.
Beatrice and Benedick are perhaps Shakespeare’s most famously witty characters; neither ever lets the other say anything without countering it with a pun or criticism. One notable characteristic of their attacks upon each other is their ability to extend a metaphor throughout lines of dialogue. When Benedick calls Beatrice a “rare parrot-teacher,” Beatrice responds, “A bird of my tongue is better than a beast of yours” (I.i.114). Benedick continues the reference to animals in his response, saying, “I would my horse had the speed of your tongue” (I.i.115). It is as if each anticipates the other’s response. Though their insults are biting, their ability to maintain such clever, interconnected sparring seems to illustrate the existence of a strong bond between them.
Beatrice and Benedick have courted in the past, and Beatrice’s viciousness stems from the fact that Benedick previously abandoned her. When she insists that Benedick “set up his bills here in Messina and challenged Cupid at the flight, and my uncle’s fool, reading the challenge, subscribed for Cupid,” she describes a “battle” of love between herself and Benedick that she has lost (I.i.32–34). The result is what Leonato describes as “a kind of merry war betwixt Sir Benedick and [Beatrice]. They never meet but there’s a skirmish of wit between them” (I.i.49–51).