Speaking of characters, let me list them. This is from memory, so if I miss someone, I beg your pardon:
The Messina Crowd
Leonato: a nobleman of Messina, father to Hero, uncle to Beatrice
Hero: Leonato's daughter, destined for misjudgment and marriage
Margaret: Hero's lady maid, destined for shenanigans
Ursula: Another of Hero's maids, there to move the plot along
Antonio, sometimes conflated with the role of Leonato's brother: a gentleman of Messina; there to have conversations with Leonato, mostly
Beatrice: Leonato's niece; she of the sparkling wit and occasionally sharp tongue, and the female lead of the play
Dogberry: The Master Constable, and quite possibly an ass
Verges: Assistant constable
Sexton: There to witness and write down the examination of the bad guys
Seacoal: A member of the watch who manages to catch the bad guys
The Friar: There to perform marriages, prevent infanticide, dispense advice and hatch plots
The Visiting/Returning Party
Don Pedro (aka the Prince): visiting Messina after trouncing his wayward half-brother in battle
Don John (aka John the Bastard): the wayward half-brother bad guy bent on thwarting the Prince and Claudio
Borachio: a gentleman friend of Don John's, a bounder and rogue
Conrade: a gentleman friend of Don John's, a rogue and a scoundrel
Claudio: a count (sometimes called a county) and the Prince's right-hand guy who helped in the trouncing, destined for marriage and misjudgment
Benedick: a gentleman who is friends with both Claudio and the Prince, esteemed for his wit, which he uses to joust with Beatrice; despite his lesser rank, he's the male lead of the play
Balthazar: there to sing in the middle of the play
And . . . ACTION!
At the start of the play, we find Beatrice concerned to know how Benedick fared in battle, while disclaiming any real interest in her. Benedick, who has evidently vowed never to marry, seems keen on sparring with Beatrice.
Here's an example of their wordplay (sexual tension much?):
Beat. I wonder that you will still be talking, Signior Benedick: nobody marks you.
Bene. What! my dear Lady Disdain, are you yet living?
Beat. Is it possible Disdain should die while she hath such meet food to feed it as Signior Benedick? Courtesy itself must convert to disdain, if you come in her presence.
Bene. Then is courtesy a turncoat. But it is certain I am loved of all ladies, only you excepted; and I would I could find in my heart that I had not a hard heart; for, truly, I love none.
Beat. A dear happiness to women: they would else have been troubled with a pernicious suitor. I thank God and my cold blood, I am of your humour for that: I had rather hear my dog bark at a crow than a man swear he loves me.
Bene. God keep your ladyship still in that mind; so some gentleman or other shall ’scape a predestinate scratched face.
Beat. Scratching could not make it worse, an ’twere such a face as yours were.
Bene. Well, you are a rare parrot-teacher.
Beat. A bird of my tongue is better than a beast of yours.
Bene. I would my horse had the speed of your tongue, and so good a continuer. But keep your way, i’ God’s name; I have done.
Beat. You always end with a jade’s trick: I know you of old.
Act I, sc. 1
The above scene does more than establish the sexual tension between the two witty souls – it also makes mention of a past relationship between the two (in Beatrice's last line). The word "jade" has a double meaning: it is a reference to a wayward horse, and it also refers to a person who is jaded. And her final bit indicates that she's completely familiar with him (which is borne out later in the play, when she tells the Prince that Benedick lent her his heart for a while, and that she returned his affection, but he turned out to be false – Act II, sc. 1).
What truly sets the plot in motion is the decision of Benedick's friend, Claudio, to wed Beatrice's cousin, Hero, based (if one believes the text) largely on her appearance and fortune (although in later sections of the play Claudio claims to love her). In the 1993 movie version, it is implied through looks and actions that Hero and Claudio had a bit of a thing going on before he ever left for battle, which somewhat mitigates the text taken alone, not that (in that time) there would have been anything unusual about the equation "APPEARANCE + MONEY = WIN" when assessing a prospective spouse. But I digress.
In which the talk turns to noting
The word "nothing" was pronounced the same as the word "noting" in Elizabethan times. And the verb "to note" appears in various forms quite a few times in the course of the play. It has to do with observation of something, sometimes through spying or eavesdropping. The title of the play is therefore a pun based on the then-homonym, where the title would have been taken as both "nothing" and "noting".
Here's a short dialogue between Benedick and Claudio about the fair Hero, which includes early references to noting, and also does the following things all at once: 1) it establishes Benedick as both an observant and witty fellow, and one who is opposed to matrimony; 2) it tips us to his attraction to Beatrice; 3) it establishes that Claudio is well and truly smitten with Hero; and 4) it establishes that Benedick is a good friend to Claudio, and conveys the dynamic of that relationship – Claudio obviously trusts Benedick, and enjoys having him around because of his wit.
Claud. Benedick, didst thou note the daughter of Signior Leonato?
Bene. I noted her not, but I looked on her.
Claud. Is she not a modest young lady?
Bene. Do you question me as an honest man should do, for my simple true judgment? Or would you have me speak after my custom, as being a professed tyrant to their sex?
Claud. No, I pray thee, speak in sober judgment.
Bene. Why, i' faith, methinks she's too low for a high praise, too brown for a fair praise, and too little for a great praise. Only this commendation I can afford her, that were she other than she is, she were unhandsome, and being no other but as she is, I do not like her.
Claud. Thou thinkest I am in sport: I pray thee tell me truly how thou likest her.
Bene. Would you buy her, that you inquire after her?
Claud. Can the world buy such a jewel?
Bene. Yea, and a case to put it into. But speak you this with a sad brow? Or do you play the flouting jack, to tell us Cupid is a good hare-finder and Vulcan a rare carpenter? Come, in what key shall a man take you to go in the song?
Claud. In mine eye she is the sweetest lady that ever I looked on.
Bene. I can see yet without spectacles, and I see no such matter. There's her cousin, an she were not possessed with a fury, exceeds her as much in beauty as the first of May does the last of December. But I hope you have no intent to turn husband, have you?
Claud. I would scarce trust myself, though I had sworn the contrary, if Hero would be my wife.
Act I, sc. 1
Benedick of course razzes Claudio for contemplating marriage. The Prince returns, asking what they've been up to, and Benedick (in best mocking fashion) brings the Prince up to speed, only to be stunned when the Prince seems to think it's a fine idea. You see, there supposed to be musketeer-like in their desire to avoid matrimony.
Prince Amen, if you love her, for the lady is very well worthy.
Claud. You speak this to fetch me in, my lord.
Prince By my troth, I speak my thought.
Claud. And in faith, my lord, I spoke mine.
Bene. And by my two faiths and troths, my lord, I spoke mine.
Claud. That I love her, I feel.
Prince That she is worthy, I know.
Bene. That I neither feel how she should be loved nor know how she should be worthy is the opinion that fire cannot melt out of me. I will die in it at the stake.
Act I, sc. 1
* Take note of the last three assertions in particular: Claudio professes his love, the Prince declares her entirely worthy, and Benedick expresses nothing but scorn on both counts. This is an excellent set-up for what is to come in Act IV, scene 1 where Claudio renounces his love and the Prince and Benedick swap opinions during the marriage scene. Ah! sweet foreshadowing!
In which the plot thickens
But wait! That's not all! No, for Don Pedro's evil brother, Don John is up to no good. How does one brother have a Spanish name and another an English one when they are both supposed to be Italian? Well might you ask. I suspect that use of the name Don John was a reference to Don John of Austria, the Spanish governor of the Netherlands during the mid 1570s, who plotted to liberate Mary, Queen of Scots – use of the name of a person so antagonistic to England and Queen Elizabeth I would have immediately telegraphed to the audiences of the time that he was a bad guy, and not to be trusted.
As if that weren't enough, Don John himself tells us he's a bad guy: "[T]hough I cannot be said to be a flattering honest man, it must not be denied but I am a plain-dealing villain." Act I, sc. 3. Don John and his two lackeys decide to do what they can to mess up the relationship between Claudio and Hero, since thwarting Claudio is the same to Don John as thwarting the Prince. And Don John is all about the thwarting.
Having now been introduced to all the principal characters, I thought you might want to check out this 10 minute section of the 1993 movie version. I'm pretty sure you'll sort out who's who without my interference.
Beatrice stands up for womankind
In this play, as in many others, Shakespeare gives his lead female character a great deal of wit. And in some ways, Beatrice spouts words that sound very much like early feminism in discussing the notion of matrimony with her cousin, Hero:
Antonio [To HERO.] Well, niece, I trust you will be ruled by your father.
Beat. Yes, faith; it is my cousin’s duty to make curtsy, and say, ‘Father, as it please you:’—but yet for all that, cousin, let him be a handsome fellow, or else make another curtsy, and say, ‘Father, as it please me.’
Leon. Well, niece, I hope to see you one day fitted with a husband.
Beat. Not till God make men of some other metal than earth. Would it not grieve a woman to be over-mastered with a piece of valiant dust? to make an account of her life to a clod of wayward marl? No, uncle, I’ll none: Adam’s sons are my brethren; and truly, I hold it a sin to match in my kindred.
Act II, sc. 1
During a masquerade, the Prince manages to broker a marriage between Hero and Claudio, securing Leonato's blessing on the match despite Don John's efforts to poison the well by causing Claudio to mistrust the Prince. To my way of thinking, Claudio is a cad for not doing his own wooing in the first place, and it demonstrates moreover his ambivalence about the marriage. But you will say, perhaps, that I am cynical. I leave you to form your own conclusion on that point.
Leon. Count, take of me my daughter, and with her my fortunes: his Grace hath made the match, and all grace say Amen to it!
Beat. Speak, count, ’tis your cue.
Claud. Silence is the perfectest herald of joy: I were but little happy, if I could say how much. Lady, as you are mine, I am yours: I give away myself for you and dote upon the exchange.
Beat. Speak, cousin; or, if you cannot, stop his mouth with a kiss, and let not him speak neither.
Act II, sc. 1.
Let's mess with Benedick and Beatrice!
Don Pedro, the Prince whom Claudio serves, conspires with Claudio, Hero and her father, Leonato, to trick Beatrice and Benedick into romance. Pretty much they're all just looking for something to bide their time while the wedding clothes and the banquet for Claudio and Hero are being made, in the way of idle nobles. Or something. But it brings us to one of my favorite bits of the play, architecturally.
Act II, scene 3, is brilliantly constructed. It opens and closes with Benedick alone in the garden, and both the start and finish of the scene contain lengthy soliloquies, which prove to contradict one another, thereby reflecting Benedick's change of heart roughly mid-scene.
In the first soliloquy, he expresses dismay and astonishment over Claudio's impending nuptials, and reasserts his complete disinterest in attaching himself to any one woman, and again repeats that he shall never marry.
Bene. . . . One woman is fair, yet I am well; another is wise, yet I am well; another virtuous, yet I am well; but till all graces be in one woman, one woman shall not come in my grace. Rich she shall be, that's certain; wise, or I'll none; virtuous or I'll never cheapen her; fair, or I'll never look on her; mild, or come not near me; noble, or not I for an angel; of good discourse, an excellent musician, and her hair shall be of what color it please God.
Just after that, the Prince, Claudio and Leonato turn up to ensure that Benedick overhears them discussing Beatrice's (then nonexistent) love for Benedick. They leave pleased with the snare they've set, intent on sending Beatrice out to summon Benedick in for dinner. Benedick then engages in an exceedingly amusing soliloquy, whereby he manages to convince himself that he must return Beatrice's alleged love, and also to try to rationally explain away his prior protestations against matrimony, and Beatrice turns up. And . . . action!
Bene. This can be no trick. The conference was sadly borne; they have the truth of this from Hero; they seem to pity the lady. It seems her affections have their full bent. Love me? Why, it must be requited! I hear how I am censured. They say I will bear myself proudly if I perceive the love come from her. They say, too, that she will rather die than give any sign of affection. I did never think to marry. I must not seem proud. Happy are they that hear their detractions and can put them to mending. They say the lady is fair; 'tis a truth, I can bear them witness. And virtuous; 'tis so, I cannot reprove it. And wise, but for loving me; 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! I may chance have some odd quirks and remnants of wit broken on me because I have railed so long against marriage, but doth not the appetite alter? A man loves the meat in his youth that he cannot endure in his age. Shall quips and sentences and these paper bullets of the brain awe a man from the career of his humor? No! The world must be peopled. When I said I would die a bachelor, I did not think I would live till I were married. Here comes Beatrice. By this day, she's a fair lady. I do spy some marks of love in her.
Beat. Against my will, I am sent to bid you come in to dinner.
Bene. Fair Beatrice, I thank you for your pains.
Beat. I took no more pains for those thanks than you take pains to thank me. If it had been painful, I would not have come.
Bene. You take pleasure then in the message?
Beat. Yea, just as much as you may take upon a knife's point and choke a daw withal. You have no stomach, signior. Fare you well. [She exits]
Bene. Ha! "Against my will I am sent to bid you come in to dinner." There's a double meaning in that. That's as much as to say "Any pains that I take for you is as easy as thanks." . . .
Within this single act, Benedick has moved from mocking the very notion of love and marriage to determining that he is (or will be) madly in love with Beatrice. Shortly thereafter, the women (Hero and Ursula) pull the same stunt with Beatrice. You can catch the discourse between the men in the garden, Benedick's responding soliloquy and conversation with Beatrice, and the conversation between Ursula and Hero here:
Now for some transitional scenes
Convinced that the other party is actually in love with them, Benedick and Beatrice curb their more hostile behaviors and determine individually that they are, in fact, in love with the other person, for which they are each abused by their friends. The Prince and Claudio taunt Benedick that he must be in love, and Benedick heads off with Leonato (most likely to discuss the possibility of courting Beatrice, who is Leonato's niece and ward).
Meanwhile, back at Don John's lair (okay – he doesn't actually have a lair, but he does have a nefarious plan to thwart Claudio's wedding): With the help of henchman Borachio (who will secure the unwitting assistance of his some-time girlfriend and Hero's lady's maid, Margaret), the evil Don John plans to con Claudio and the Prince into believing that Hero is doing the nasty with another man. *cue evil cackling*
Will Benedick and Beatrice confess their love? Will Claudio marry Hero, or will Don John's evil scheme of thwartage carry the day? Tune in tomorrow, and brush up your Shakespeare!