Standing in the garden in front of the house of Leonato, the Governor of Messina, were Leonato himself, his daughter, whose name was Hero, and his niece, whose name was Beatrice. Also present was a messenger sent to Leonato by Don Pedro, the Prince of Aragorn. The messenger had just given Leonato a letter about a battle fought between the forces of Don Pedro and his illegitimate half-brother, Don John. Don Pedro’s soldiers had won the battle, and afterward, Don Pedro and Don John were reconciled.
“I learn in this letter that Don Pedro of Aragon is coming tonight to Messina,” Leonato said.
The messenger replied, “By this time, he is very near. When I left him, he was not nine miles away from Messina.”
“He has just fought a battle,” Leonato said. “How many gentlemen — men of the upper classes — did he lose in the battle?”
“Few of any rank,” the messenger replied, “and none of any great importance.”
“A victory is won twice when the victor brings home alive nearly all of his soldiers,” Leonato said. “I read in this letter that Don Pedro has bestowed much honor on a young Florentine named Claudio.”
“Claudio much deserved the honor, and Don Pedro has properly rewarded him for his actions in the battle. Claudio performed deeds in battle that no one would expect such a young man to do. Despite having the figure of a lamb, he performed the feats of a lion. Claudio indeed exceeded all expectations of him so much that I cannot tell you all that he did.”
“Claudio has an uncle here in Messina who will be very happy to hear of his heroism.”
“I have already carried to Claudio’s uncle letters that made him very happy,” the messenger said. “The uncle felt so much joy that he broke out in emblems of what sometimes expresses bitterness.”
“Did he break out into tears?” Leonato asked.
“In great measure. He cried much.”
“That was a kind overflow of kindness as expressed by kindred. No faces are truer than those that are so washed by tears. How much better it is to weep at joy than to joy at weeping! It is much better to cry with happiness than to rejoice at someone’s unhappiness.”
Beatrice asked, “Please tell me whether Signior Mountanto has returned from the wars or not.”
Beatrice thought, The messenger will not understand my joke, but Hero will. I am referring to Benedick. A montanto is an upward thrust in fencing — it starts low and goes upward — and a stallion mounts a mare. Benedick is a ladies’ man, and he and I have a history.
The messenger replied, “I know none of that name, lady. No one of any rank in the army bears that name.”
“Who is he whom you are asking about, niece?” Leonato asked.
“My cousin means Signior Benedick of Padua,” Hero replied for Beatrice.
“Oh,” the messenger said. “He has returned, and he is as pleasant and amusing as he ever was.”
“Benedick once set up public notices here in Messina to announce that he was challenging Cupid to an archery contest,” Beatrice said. “He claimed to be a better lady killer than Cupid. Cupid is blindfolded, but his golden arrows have a great impact when they hit someone — that person instantly falls in love. By claiming to be superior to Cupid in archery, Benedick was claiming that he would never fall in love — and that he would make more women fall in love than Cupid could.
“My uncle’s fool, reading Benedick’s challenge, responded on behalf of Cupid, and competed against him in the archery contest. My uncle’s jester used bird-bolts in the contest — blunt arrows used to stun birds. Bird-bolts are given to children and to fools. My uncle’s fool mocked Benedick.”
She added, “Please tell me how many soldiers has Benedick killed and eaten in these wars? Better, just tell me how many he has killed. Benedick is a braggart who boasts about his prowess in many kinds of hunting, and so I promised to eat all of his killing. I do not think that he is enough of a soldier to kill anyone.”
“Truly, niece,” Leonato said, “you criticize Benedick too much, but he will find a way to get even with you, I am sure. Benedick can give as good as he gets.”
“Benedick has done good service, lady, in these wars,” the messenger said.
“You had stale food, and Benedick has helped to eat it. He is a very hearty eater; he has an excellent stomach.”
“He has an excellent stomach for battle,” the messenger said. “He is a good soldier, too, lady.”
“He is a good soldier compared to a lady, but what is he compared to a lord?” Beatrice asked.
“He is a lord compared to a lord, and a man compared to a man. He is stuffed with all the honorable virtues,” the messenger replied.
“You speak truly, indeed,” Beatrice said. “Benedick is no less than a stuffed man — he is a dummy — but what is he stuffed with? He is full of — shh, I ought not to finish that sentence. We are all mortal.”
“You must not, sir, mistake my niece,” Leonato said to the messenger. “Signior Benedick and she wage a kind of merry war. They never meet without engaging in a skirmish of wit between them.”
“Benedick performs poorly in those skirmishes,” Beatrice said. “People have five wits: memory, fantasy, judgment, imagination, and common sense. In our last skirmish, four of his five wits went limping off, and now the whole man is governed by one wit. If he has enough wit to keep himself warm in cold weather, let him know that it is what differentiates him from his horse. Human beings are the only rational creatures, and Benedick’s one wit is what allows him to be known as a reasonable creature.”
She added, “Who is his male friend and companion now? He has every month a new sworn brother for life.”
“Is that possible? You must be exaggerating,” the messenger said.
“No, it is very possible,” Beatrice said. “He pledges his faith to each new friend just like he changes the fashion of the hat he wears. With each change in fashion, he wears a new hat.”
“I see, lady, that the gentleman is not in your good books — he is not in your favor,” the messenger said.
“No, he is not,” Beatrice replied. “If he were, I would burn my library. But please tell me who is his new male friend? Is there no young hooligan now who will make a voyage with him to the devil?”
“He is most often in the company of the right noble Claudio.”
“Benedick will hang upon Claudio like a disease. Benedick is more contagious than the plague, and the catcher of the Benedick illness becomes immediately insane. God help the noble Claudio! If he has caught the Benedick illness, it will cost him a thousand pounds before he can be cured.”
The messenger thought, This lady really is clever. The Benedictine priests are exorcists and attempt to cure madness. She made a good pun on “Benedick.”
“Lady, I will take pains to always be friends with you and so avoid becoming the victim of your tongue,” the messenger said.
“Do so, good friend,” Beatrice replied.
“You will never catch the Benedick disease and run insane, niece,” Leonato said.
“No, not until there is a hot January in Italy,” Beatrice replied.
The messenger heard a noise and looked around. He said, “Don Pedro is coming here now along with some other people.”
Don Pedro and Don John, his illegitimate half-brother, with whom he had recently quarreled but then been reconciled, approached, along with Claudio, Benedick, and Balthasar, a singer and attendant who worked for Don Pedro.
Don Pedro said, “Good Signior Leonato, you are meeting your trouble. The fashion of the world is to avoid expense, but by hosting us you are encountering it.”
“You are never a trouble to me,” Leonato said. “Never came trouble to my house in the likeness of your grace. Trouble being gone, comfort should remain; but when you depart from me, sorrow stays and happiness leaves.”
“You embrace the burden of my visit too eagerly,” Don Pedro said. He nodded at Hero and said, “I think this is your daughter.”
“Her mother has many times told me so,” Leonato said.
“Were you in doubt, sir, that you needed to ask her?” Benedick joked.
Leonato joked back, “Signior Benedick, no. I knew that I was the father of my daughter because when she was born you were only a child. If you had been an adult, I might have had my doubts.”
“Your joke has been answered, Benedick,” Don Pedro said. “All of us know that you are a ladies’ man. But truly the lady fathers herself. All we need to do is to look at Hero to know that Leonato is her father. Be happy, lady, because you resemble your honorable father.”
Don Pedro and Leonato then went aside and spoke privately.
Benedick joked, “Even if Signior Leonato is her father, she would not want to have his head on her shoulders for all Messina, as like him as she is. Signior Leonato is bearded and has grey hair.”
“I wonder that you are always talking, Signior Benedick,” Beatrice said. “No one is paying attention to you.”
“What, my dear Lady Disdain!” Benedick replied, “Are you still alive? I would have thought that you had died by now.”
“It is impossible for Lady Disdain to die while she has such suitable food to feed it as Signior Benedick. Courtesy itself must convert to disdain, if you come within her presence.”
“Then courtesy is a traitor,” Benedick said. “But it is certain that I am loved by all ladies, with the exception of only you, and I wish that I could find in my heart that I had not a hard heart because, truly, I love no one of the opposite sex.”
“That is a precious piece of good fortune to women; otherwise, they would have been troubled with a pernicious and harmful suitor. I thank God and my cold blood that I am like you in loving no one of the opposite sex. In fact, I prefer to hear my dog bark at a crow than to hear a man swear that he loves me.”
“May God keep your ladyship always like that!” Benedick said. “That way, some gentleman or other shall escape an otherwise predestined scratched face. Anyone who marries you can expect to be scratched.”
“Scratching could not make the gentleman’s face worse, if it were a face such as yours.”
“You are an excellent parrot-teacher,” Benedick said. “You would do well at teaching a parrot because you say the same kind of things over and over.”
“My talking bird is better than your dumb beast,” Beatrice replied. “A bird can say something, but a beast cannot.”
“I wish that my horse had the speed of your tongue, and could gallop as long as you can talk. But keep on talking — I have finished talking.”
“I have known you a long time. You are like a jade — an ill-conditioned horse. You always end with a jade’s trick — you fade and cannot go the distance.”
Copyright by Bruce D. Bruce
Note: The above is an excerpt from my book William Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing: A Retelling in Prose, which is available here: