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.
The bitter and wicked Don John has learned of the upcoming marriage of Claudio and Hero, and he wishes that he could find a way to prevent it. Don John’s servant Borachio devises a plan. Borachio is currently the lover of one of Hero’s serving women, Margaret. He suggests that Don John go to Claudio and Don Pedro and tell them that Hero is not a virgin but a whore, a woman who has willingly corrupted her own innocence before her marriage and at the same time chosen to be unfaithful to the man she loves. In order to prove this accusation, Don John will bring Don Pedro and Claudio below the window of Hero’s room on the night before the wedding, where they should hide and watch. On the balcony outside Hero’s room, Borachio will make love to Margaret—whom he will have convinced to dress up in Hero’s clothing. The watchers will then see a woman who resembles Hero making love with Borachio, and will thus believe Don John’s claim that Hero has been false to Claudio. Very pleased with the plan, Don John promises Borachio a large reward if he can pull it off and prevent the planned wedding.Read a translation of Act II, scene ii →
Meanwhile, ignorant of the evil that Don John stealthily plots, Benedick’s friends enact their own benign trick to get Benedick and Beatrice to fall in love. They know that Benedick is currently wandering around in the garden, wondering aloud to himself how, although he knows that love makes men into idiots, any intelligent man can fall in love. He ponders how Claudio can have turned from a plain-speaking, practical soldier into a moony-eyed lover. Benedick thinks it unlikely that he himself will ever become a lover.
Suddenly, Benedick hears Don Pedro, Claudio, and Leonato approaching, and he decides to hide among the trees in the arbor and eavesdrop. Don Pedro and Claudio, noticing him there, confer quietly with each other and decide it’s time to put their scheme into effect. They begin to talk loudly, pretending that they have just learned that Beatrice has fallen in love with Benedick. Benedick, hidden in the arbor, asks himself in shock whether this can possibly be true. But Don Pedro, Leonato, and Claudio embellish the story, talking about how passionately Beatrice adores Benedick, and how they are afraid that her passion will drive her insane or spur her to suicide. She dares not tell Benedick, they say, for fear that he would make fun of her for it—since everyone knows what his mocking personality would do. They all agree that Benedick would be a fool to turn her away, for he currently seems unworthy of so fine a woman as Beatrice.
The others go in to have dinner, and the amazed Benedick, emerging from the arbor, plunges himself into profound thought. Don Pedro’s plan has worked: Benedick decides that he will “take pity” upon the beautiful, witty, and virtuous Beatrice by loving her in return. He has changed his mind, and far from wanting to remain an eternal bachelor, he now desires to win and marry Beatrice. Beatrice appears, having been sent out to fetch Benedick in to dinner. She deals as scornfully as usual with him, but he treats her with unusual flattery and courtesy. Confused and suspicious, Beatrice mocks him again before departing, but the infatuated Benedick interprets her words as containing hidden messages of love, and he happily runs off to have a portrait made of her so that he can carry it around with him.Read a translation of Act II, scene iii →
Don John’s malice resurfaces in Act II, scene ii, as we see him plotting to split Hero and Claudio. Once again, we must wonder about his motives, as his desire to hurt others so badly is inconsistent with his claim to be a low-grade villain. Borachio’s statement that his plan, if it succeeds, is sure “to misuse the Prince, to vex Claudio, to undo Hero, and kill Leonato” makes it clear that Don John’s schemes have some darker purpose in mind (II.ii.24–25).
In the Renaissance, the virginity of an upper-class woman at the time of her marriage carried a great deal of importance for not only her own reputation but also for that of her family and her prospective husband. Adultery, unchaste behavior, or premarital sex in a noblewoman could be a fighting matter—one that could spur a parent to disown or even kill a daughter, a betrayed husband to murder his wife or rival, or a defender to challenge a woman’s accuser to a duel to the death in order to clear her name. If the entire community were to believe Hero unchaste, then her honor, name, and reputation would suffer permanently; Claudio would suffer considerably more than simple vexation; and the stress might well “kill” Leonato. This plot is far more than a merely troublesome game.