[H]e that is more than a youth is not for me, and he that is less than a man, I am not for him.See Important Quotations Explained
While Hero, Beatrice, Leonato, and Antonio wait for the evening’s masked ball to begin, Hero and Beatrice discuss their idea of the perfect man—a happy medium between Don John, who never talks, and Benedick, who engages himself in constant banter. This exchange leads into a conversation about whether or not Beatrice will ever get a husband, and Beatrice laughingly claims that she will not. Leonato and Antonio also remind Hero about their belief that Don Pedro plans to propose to her that evening. The other partygoers enter, and the men put on masks. Supposedly, the women now cannot tell who the men are. The music begins, and the dancers pair off and hold conversations while they dance. Don Pedro’s musician, Balthasar, dances with Hero’s servant Margaret and old Antonio dances with Hero’s other servant, Ursula. Meanwhile, Don Pedro dances with Hero and begins to flirt with her. Benedick dances with Beatrice, who either does not recognize him or pretends not to. She insults Benedick thoroughly to her dancing partner, saying that while Benedick thinks that he is witty others find him completely boring.
The music leads many of the dancers away into corners of the stage, creating various couplings. Don John, who has seen his brother Don Pedro courting Hero, decides to make Claudio jealous by making him think that Don Pedro has decided to win and keep Hero for himself instead of giving her to Claudio as he had promised. Pretending not to recognize Claudio behind his mask, Don John addresses him as if he were Benedick, mentioning to him that, contrary to their plan, Don Pedro actually courts Hero for himself and means to marry her that very night.
Claudio believes Don John, and, when the real Benedick enters a few moments later, the angry and miserable Claudio rushes out. But when Don Pedro comes in along with Hero and Leonato, Benedick learns that Don Pedro has been true to his word after all; he has courted and won Hero for Claudio, not for himself, just as he promised. Benedick still remains bitter about the nasty things Beatrice said to him during the dance, so when Beatrice approaches with Claudio, he begs Don Pedro to send him on some extremely arduous errand rather than be forced to endure her company. Don Pedro laughingly insists that he stay, but Benedick leaves anyway.
When Claudio returns, Don Pedro tells him that Hero has agreed to marry him (Claudio), and Leonato supports him. Claudio, overwhelmed, can barely speak, but he and Hero privately make their promises to one another. Beatrice half-seriously remarks that she will never have a husband, and Don Pedro offers himself to her. Beatrice, comparing him to fancy clothes, replies that she wishes she could have him but that he would be too lavish and valuable for her to wear every day. After Beatrice and Benedick leave, Leonato and Claudio discuss when Claudio will marry Hero. Claudio wants the wedding to occur the next day, but Leonato decides on the coming Monday, only a week away. Claudio regrets that the wait will be so long, but Don Pedro comes up with a good way to pass the time: with the help of all his friends, he will design a plan to get Beatrice and Benedick to stop arguing and fall in love with one another. He secures the promises of Leonato, Claudio, and Hero to help him in the plan he will devise.
This long scene resolves the first of the play’s important questions: whether Claudio will receive Hero’s consent to love and marry her. When the two lovers are finally brought together, Claudio is too overwhelmed with joy to profess his love in elevated language, saying to Hero simply, “Silence is the perfectest herald of joy. I were but little happy if I could say how much” (II.i.
These two quiet characters—Claudio and Hero—seem well matched, and Claudio’s addressing of Beatrice as “cousin” confirms that he will soon marry into her family (II.i.
Friendship is constant . . . Save in the office and affairs of love. . . . . . . Farewell, therefore, Hero. (II.i. 153–160)
Claudio’s readiness to believe that his friend would betray him is disturbing, and Don John’s plotting coupled with Claudio’s gullibility ominously foreshadows worse things to follow.
Beatrice and Benedick continue their “merry war” of wits with one another, but it seems to veer off course and turn into a much more hurtful competition. This time, Beatrice gets the better of Benedick while Benedick cannot defend himself. Dancing with him during the ball, while masked, she insults Benedick by mocking his “wittiness” and declaring his jokes boring. Beatrice’s jabs at Benedick are psychologically astute. We see how apt her comments are when Benedick cannot stop repeating her words to himself later in the scene. Moreover, the fact that Benedick begs Don Pedro frantically to let him leave so he will not have to talk to Beatrice suggests that he finds her company not simply annoying but also damaging.
Though Beatrice repeats in this scene her intention never to marry, her attitude seems a little changed. A certain wistfulness marks her words as she watches the betrothal of Hero to Claudio: “Good Lord, for alliance! There goes everyone to the world but I, and I am sunburnt. I may sit in a corner and cry ‘Heigh-ho for a husband!’” (II.i.