By Ace G. Pilkington
Benedick is fascinated by Beatrice but fears her; anguishes over love though he is animated by it; and refuses absolutely to marry until he chooses enthusiastically to do so. Indeed, his volte-face made his name into a common noun meaning, in the words of The New Shorter Oxford English Dictionary, “a newly married man; especially an apparently confirmed bachelor who marries.” But Benedick and Shakespeare are well aware that the marriage ceremony is only a small part of the change. In Act 2, Scene 3, using Claudio as a bad example of what might happen to a previously normal gentleman, Benedick asks himself, “May I be so converted and still see with these eyes?” (2.3.22; all references to act, scene, and line numbers in the play are to A. R. Humphreys, ed., Much Ado about Nothing [London: Methuen, 1981]). He must have found his own answer unsettling because it lacks that ringing certainty which he had in Act 1. He says, “I cannot tell; I think not” (2.3.22 23). Don Pedro had previously declared Benedick to be a heretic against the religion of love and beauty, following Benedick’s own assertion that he would maintain his negative opinion of women (and Hero specifically) even in the fire. “I will,” Benedick says, reaffirming his obstinate belief, “die in it at the stake” (1.1.215 16).
However, by Act 2, a different kind of fire seems to have singed if not positively melted Benedick’s resolve. Though he is relatively certain that love cannot “transform” him, he is like a man who is afraid he has caught a disease. He announces his own health in a loud voice (“yet, I am well”), but he is constantly checking for signs and symptoms. He says, “Till all graces be in one woman, one woman shall not come in my grace” (2.3.29 30). While this is still a denial of the possibility of love or marriage, it is far from absolute, and, in fact, when Benedick completes the list of virtues which a woman must have in order to win his love, he seems afraid to add a hair color to the description. He finishes hurriedly with, “And her hair shall be—of what colour it please God (2.2.34 35). Benedick’s description is too much like Beatrice already.
Of course, by the time Don Pedro, Claudio, and Leonato have finished their work as “love gods,” Benedick reverses himself entirely. Once he overhears that Beatrice is in love with him, he declares that her passion must be “requited,” no matter what embarrassment he may suffer and what a “notable argument” he may become as a result of his changed position. The completeness of Benedick’s conversion is remarkable. In Act 4, Scene 1, when Claudio has rejected Hero, and Claudio, Don Pedro, and Don John march out of the church together in an expression of masculine solidarity, Benedick stays behind with Beatrice. And this is before the two of them have talked about their feelings for each other. Benedick is willing to take a stand against his friends and even to lie to them on behalf–not even of Beatrice herself but of her previously despised cousin, Hero. Indeed, once Beatrice and Benedick have hesitantly managed to say “I love you” to each other, Benedick agrees to Beatrice’s demand that he, “Kill Claudio” (4.1.288). Admittedly, he objects and does not agree immediately to kill his best friend, but he does agree.
It is a measure of Shakespeare’s skill in characterization that we do not find Benedick’s transformation unbelievable. In spite of the constant hostilities and the pointed insults, we know what is really going on between the two stars of this wit-combat show. When Claudio praises Hero in Act 1, Benedick says, “There’s her cousin, and she were not possessed with a fury, exceeds her as much in beauty as the first of May doth the last of December” (1.1.177 79). This is obvious; less so but also important are more subtle signs that Benedick is not the misogynist he claims to be. He says to Beatrice, “I am loved of all ladies, only you excepted; and I would I could find it in my heart that I had not a hard heart” (1.1.114 16). When Claudio asks (about Hero, of course), “Can the world buy such a jewel?” Benedick’s response is, “Yea, and a case to put it into” (1.1.168 69). This sounds appropriately cynical until we ask what sort of case he might have in mind. Here, from The Lost Love Letters of Heloise and Abelard is an answer likely to occur to a lover or even to someone who is thinking about being a lover, “To his most precious jewel, ever radiant with its natural splendor, her purest gold: may he surround and fittingly set that same jewel in a joyful embrace” (Constant J. Mews, with a translation by Neville Chiavaroli and Constant J. Mews [New York: Palgrave, 2001],195).
Though Benedick expresses disapproval of Claudio’s intent to turn husband, he feels sympathy when his friend is seemingly disappointed, and it looks (briefly) as though Hero will marry Don Pedro. “Poor hurt fowl,” Benedick says of Claudio, and continuing the bird imagery, he accuses Don Pedro of stealing Claudio’s “bird’s nest.” So much for Benedick’s intransigent opposition to marriage for himself and his friends! Nowhere does he instruct Claudio to rejoice in a narrow escape from a terrible fate, but instead he is critical of Claudio for sounding too casual about his loss. Claudio has said, “I wish him joy of her.” And Benedick replies, “Why that’s spoken like an honest drover: so they sell bullocks” (2.1.180 82). In fact, the high value Benedick places on marriage comes through most clearly when he is least happy with Beatrice.
Following the masked ball, he nurses his injured feelings and fumes over her insults. He says, “I would not marry her, though she were endowed with all that Adam had left him before he transgressed” (2.1.234 35). The statement indicates that he has been thinking about marrying Beatrice, that he associates her, however backhandedly, with paradise, and that in his extreme anger he wishes to deprive her of something truly valuable—marriage!
In the end, “in despite of his quick wit and his queasy stomach (2.1.360 61),” Benedick gets what he has desired all along. He is transformed into the person he secretly knows himself to be: his hard heart is softened, his insults are put aside, and the woman he wants and needs and obsesses over, tells him, “I love you with so much of my heart that none is left to protest” (4.1.285 86).