Symbols are objects, characters, figures, and colors used to represent abstract ideas or concepts.
The play is peppered with metaphors involving the taming of wild animals. In the case of the courtship between Beatrice and Benedick, the symbol of a tamed savage animal represents the social taming that must occur for both wild souls to be ready to submit themselves to the shackles of love and marriage. Beatrice’s vow to submit to Benedick’s love by “[t]aming my wild heart to thy loving hand” makes use of terms from falconry, suggesting that Benedick is to become Beatrice’s master (III.i.113). In the opening act, Claudio and Don Pedro tease Benedick about his aversion to marriage, comparing him to a wild animal. Don Pedro quotes a common adage, “‘In time the savage bull doth bear the yoke,’” meaning that in time even the savage Benedick will surrender to the taming of love and marriage (I.i.213). Benedick mocks this sentiment, professing that he will never submit to the will of a woman. At the very end, when Benedick and Beatrice agree to marry, Claudio pokes fun at Benedick’s mortified countenance, suggesting that Benedick is reluctant to marry because he remembers the allusion to tamed bulls:
Tush, fear not, man, we’ll tip thy horns with gold,
And all Europa shall rejoice at thee
As once Europa did at lusty Jove
When he would play the noble beast in love.
Claudio changes Benedick from a laboring farm animal, a bull straining under a yoke, to a wild god, empowered by his bestial form to take sexual possession of his lady. While the bull of marriage is the sadly yoked, formerly savage creature, the bull that Claudio refers to comes from the classical myth in which Zeus took the form of a bull and carried off the mortal woman Europa. This second bull is supposed to represent the other side of the coin: the bull of bestial male sexuality.
Throughout the play, images of war frequently symbolize verbal arguments and confrontations. At the beginning of the play, Leonato relates to the other characters that there is a “merry war” between Beatrice and Benedick: “They never meet but there’s a skirmish of wit between them” (I.i.50–51). Beatrice carries on this martial imagery, describing how, when she won the last duel with Benedick, “four of his five wits went halting off” (I.i.53). When Benedick arrives, their witty exchange resembles the blows and parries of a well-executed fencing match. Leonato accuses Claudio of killing Hero with words: “Thy slander hath gone through and through her heart” (V.i.68). Later in the same scene, Benedick presents Claudio with a violent verbal challenge: to duel to the death over Hero’s honor. When Borachio confesses to staging the loss of Hero’s innocence, Don Pedro describes this spoken evidence as a sword that tears through Claudio’s heart: “Runs not this speech like iron through your blood?” (V.i.227), and Claudio responds that he has already figuratively committed suicide upon hearing these words: “I have drunk poison whiles he uttered it” (V.i.228).
Claudio’s powerful words accusing Hero of unchaste and disloyal acts cause her to fall down in apparent lifelessness. Leonato accentuates the direness of Hero’s state, pushing her further into seeming death by renouncing her, “Hence from her, let her die” (IV.i.153). When Friar Francis, Hero, and Beatrice convince Leonato of his daughter’s innocence, they maintain that she really has died, in order to punish Claudio and give Hero a respectable amount of time to regain her honor, which, although not lost, has been publicly savaged. Claudio performs all the actions of mourning Hero, paying a choir to sing a dirge at her tomb. In a symbolic sense, Hero has died, since, although she is pure, Claudio’s damning accusation has permanently besmirched her name. She must symbolically die and be reborn pure again in order for Claudio to marry her a second time. Hero’s false death is less a charade aimed to induce remorse in Claudio than it is a social ritual designed to cleanse her name and person of infamy.