Act I, Scene 1
The Prince has sent a message to his good friend Leonato to inform him that he and his soldiers will be coming to stay for a while. Leonato is very pleased at this news, especially since the battle went well and the didn’t lose anyone important. He is eager to see the Prince, who has taken a liking to a valiant young soldier named Claudio. Claudio has more than deserved these honors. His uncle, upon hearing this news, wept with joy.
Beatrice inquires after Signor Montanto (a mocking term that implies he is a bully). The messenger and Leonato are confused, but Hero quickly explains that Beatrice is referring to Benedick of Padua. The messenger happily reports the Benedick has survived the wars and is as pleasant as ever. Beatrice recounts the time Benedick challenged Cupid to an archery match. Leonato’s fool shot for Cupid using toy arrows. She asks how many Benedick has killed in the wars because she swore to eat every man he killed. Leonato chides his niece for being so harsh to Benedick, but he’s certain Benedick will rise to the challenge.
The messenger, too, comes to Benedick’s defense and expresses that he served well. Beatrice is certain that he helped eat all of their rotten food because he has a strong stomach. The messenger insists that he is a good soldier. Beatrice continues to make snide remarks until Leonato intervenes and explains that there is a battle of words going on between Beatrice and Benedick. She explains that Benedick lost most of his wit during their last encounter.
Beatrice asks which young soldier is Benedick’s most recent companion. It’s Claudio. She feels sorry for Claudio because Benedick is like a disease that is hard to get rid of. The messenger decides Beatrice is amusing and he likes her company.
Don Pedro, the Prince, enters with his men. He teases Leonato for always welcoming the cost of a royal visit. Leonato assures him that the joy in the Prince’s visit is well worth any cost incurred. Don Pedro asks if Hero is his daughter. Leonato jokes that her mother always said Hero was his. This is when Benedick steps in and asks if Hero’s paternity were in question. Don Pedro quickly steers the conversation to what a lovely person Hero is and how like she is to her father.
Benedick tries to make a jab at Leonato’s looks, but Beatrice quickly points out that no one is listening to him. He calls her Lady Disdain and remarks that she is still alive. Beatrice retorts that disdain could never perish with the likes of Benedick around. Good manners turn to disdain when Benedick is around. Benedick quickly asserts that women love him (Beatrice excepted), but unfortunately he has a hard heart and loves no woman. Beatrice is thankful for the sake of women everywhere. She, however, admits she is of the same mind with Benedick when it comes to love. He is thankful it will spare some man a scratched face. She says a scratch couldn’t make it worse if it was a face like his. They quip about wit, but Benedick shuts it down.
Don Pedro explains that Leonato has invited them all to stay at least a month. Leonato makes a point to welcome Don John, the Prince’s brother. The two brothers were at odds, but recently made up. Everyone leaves except Claudio and Benedick.
Claudio asks Benedick what he thinks about Hero. Benedick asks if he wants his objective opinion or the opinion he holds as an admitted womanizer. Claudio asks for what he really thinks. He thinks she’s okay. There’s nothing really remarkable about her. Claudio assumes Benedick must be joking. Benedick asks why he cares so much. Claudio expresses his deep desire to woo Hero. Benedick doesn’t see why. Beatrice, he asserts, his better in pretty much every way if she weren’t such a harpy. Claudio finally admits that he wants to marry Hero. Benedick laments that he will never see a man stay a Bachelor into his adult years.
Don Pedro comes back looking for the two men. He asks what’s going on. Benedick feigns loyalty to Claudio and then tells the prince that Claudio is in love with Hero. Don Pedro encourages the match.. Benedick still doesn’t see it. Don Pedro and Claudio chide Benedick for his ridiculous stance against love. Benedick explains that he thanks a woman for birthing and raising him, but he refuses to trust another woman enough to love her. Don Pedro insists he will see Benedick fall in love. Benedick repeatedly asserts that if that should happen he should be mocked, tortured, and shot at. Don Pedro sends Benedick with a message for Leonato in the meantime. Benedick starts embellish his willingness to do the task and is promptly mocked. He tells them to reflect on their behavior and leaves.
Claudio asks the prince for his advice. He confirms that Hero is Leonato’s only child and so heir to everything he has. Then, Claudio explains how he liked Hero well enough as they were off to war, but the upcoming battle was the focus of his thoughts. Now, he would swear he went to war for Hero. Don Pedro says he will talk to Leonato and arrange the marriage. Claudio worries that this is all too sudden. Don Pedro decides to don a disguise and woo Hero on behalf of Claudio.
Act I, Scene 2
Leonato is preparing for his party, but his brother, Antonio, has some news. One of his servants overheard the Prince and Claudio talking. Apparently, Don Pedro confessed to Claudio that he loved Hero. He planned to dance with her and, if he found her suitable, would ask for marriage. Leonato makes sure they can trust this servant, which according to Antonio they can. Leonato resolves to tell his daughter about this, so she will be prepared for the prince.
Act I, Scene 3
Conrade asks Don John why he is sad. He is just full of sadness. Conrade tries to reason with him, but he won’t have it. He will act how he feels and there is nothing anyone can do about it. Conrade reminds Don John that he is only very recently in his brother’s good graces and must tread carefully. Don John refuses to do so because he would rather be disliked than be anything other than he is, a villain. He wishes he were free to speak his mind.
Borachio comes in with some hot gossip. He overheard Don Pedro and Claudio plotting to have the prince woo Hero on behalf of Claudio. Don John believes this is something he can work with and they set off to cause trouble.
Act II, Scene 1
Leonato, Antonio, Hero, and Beatrice talk before the party. They comment on how serious Don John seems to be all the time. Beatrice remarks that a man somewhere in between Don John and Benedick would be perfect. However, she doubts such a man exists. Leonato warns that she will never get a husband if she keeps talking like that. She thanks God every day and night that he does not send her a husband. She explains that she could never love a man with a beard because he is too old. Nor could she love a man with no beard because he is too young. She is resolved to escorting apes into hell like all the other old maids. However, she won’t stay in hell. When she delivers her apes, the devil will send her to heaven and in heaven she will spend all of her days lounging with the bachelors.
Antonio changes the subject to Hero, asserting that she must follow the will of her father. Beatrice agrees, but asks that her husband be handsome or Hero should say no. Leonato hopes he sees Beatrice married one day, but she insists not until men are made out of something different.
Leonato reminds Hero that should the prince ask for her hand, she should say yes. Beatrice insists that if she is not successfully wooed, the fault will be in the music. She explains that wooing is like a fast-paced jig. The wedding is like a carefully timed waltz and the rest of the marriage is like an oddly timed dance.
The party gets going. Don Pedro quickly pulls Hero aside. Margaret and Balthazar flirt and dance. Ursula recognizes Antonio despite his attempts at disguising himself.
Benedick (in disguise) has told Beatrice that someone said she was disdainful. She immediately assumes it was Benedick that said it. He pretends not to know who Benedick is. She explains that he is the prince’s fool and really only mocks people for humor. This both makes men laugh and angry enough to beat him. When he says he will tell Benedick what she said, she happily tells him to do so. She predicts he will say some mean things about her and then, when no one laughs, he will get so sad he won’t eat. They rejoin the party.
Don John and Borachio tell Claudio (pretending he’s Benedick) that Don Pedro is wooing Hero for himself. Claudio immediately believes this and starts to pout. Benedick comes in and tells him the prince has won Hero. Claudio wishes them well. Benedick teases him about love and being a pouty baby. Claudio gets mad and storms off.
Benedick takes this moment to complain about Beatrice and all the mean things she said. Don Pedro comes in to ask about Claudio. Benedick explains that he is mad because he thinks the prince stole Hero. Don Pedro says Beatrice feels very wronged by him. This sets Benedick off and he rants about how mean and awful Beatrice is. She enters in the middle of his tirade. He begs Don Pedro to send him on any task to the furthest corner of the world, but Don Pedro refuses. Benedick leaves.
Beatrice has brought Claudio to Don Pedro. Claudio is melancholy, but he won’t say why. Don Pedro explains that he has talked with Leonato and Claudio will marry Hero. Leonato and Hero come in and Leonato blesses the match. Claudio is speechless. He finally pledges his love to Hero. She is also speechless, so Beatrice tells them to kiss. They do.
Beatrice remarks on love and almost wishes for a husband. Don Pedro swears to find her a husband. She comments on what fine husbands his father made. He asks if she will have him. She says no. He is too fine a man for her. She talks herself deeper in the hole for a bit until Leonato finds an excuse to send her off.
Don Pedro concocts a plan to get Beatrice and Benedick to fall in love. Everyone is on board with this plan.