Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1366
Friar Francis: priest at the nuptials of Claudio and Hero, who devises a plan to change the hearts of Claudio and Don Pedro and reverse the effects of the slander
Attendants: the bridal party
This scene takes place before the altar in the church. Claudio contemptuously rejects Hero as a proved wanton. Leonato assumes that Claudio took Hero's virginity, which Claudio denies. Leonato appeals to the prince but Don Pedro, echoed by his brother, Don John, confirms Claudio's accusation. Claudio interrogates Hero about the man he saw at her window the night before. Hero denies the encounter. Claudio vows to love no more. Leonato seeks to be killed. Hero swoons. Don John, Don Pedro, and Claudio storm out of the church. Leonato, unable to believe that the two princes and Claudio could lie, accepts the slander as true and declares that if Hero is not dead he will kill her himself, disowning her. After Friar Francis recognizes her innocence and Benedick intuits that Don Pedro and Claudio have been misled by Don John, the good father directs Leonato to hide Hero away, to announce that she died upon being accused and to hold public mourning for her to change slander to remorse and to soften the heart of Claudio.
Beatrice and Benedick, suddenly alone before the altar, confess their love for one another. Benedick bids her to ask him to do anything for her. Beatrice answers with the chilling request, "[k]ill Claudio." Benedick asks Beatrice if she believes in her soul that Claudio wronged Hero. Receiving her affirmative answer, he agrees to challenge his friend and comrade-in-arms, Claudio.
Shakespeare breaks the tone and movement of the comic action with a solemn ritual of marriage held before the altar, the visual effect of which is powerful and lends dignity to the scene. The first 21 lines of this scene are in prose, then in verse that ends in a quatrain (at 253) when the prose resumes.
Here we reach the climax of the many references to appearances and reality, when Claudio, locked in a world of sense evidence, in a church, before a congregation, accuses and refuses Hero, comparing her to a rotten orange. Dramatically, this crisis scene can be nothing but shocking, no matter how much we are prepared for it, and our mood is instantly altered.
Claudio, enjoying his revenge, takes his time to reject Hero and plays the injured lover to the hilt. He focuses his rejection on her name, asking her only one question (71-80):
Claudio: Let me but move one question to your daughter; And by that fatherly and kindly power That you have in her, bid her answer truly.
Leonato: I charge thee do so, as thou art my child.
Hero: 0, God defend me, how am I beset! What kind of catechizing call you this?
Claudio: To make you answer truly to your name.
Hero: Is it not Hero? Who can blot that name With any just reproach?
He can only justify his action with the words, 'Are our eyes our own?" (71), echoed by Don Pedro, "Myself, my brother, and this grieved count/Did see her/Did hear her" (89-90). Then Claudio tearfully teeters in antithesis and pummels Hero with paradoxes (99-103):
Oh Hero, what a Hero hadst thou been,
If half thy outward graces had been placed
About thy thoughts and counsels of they heart!
But fare thee well, most foul, most fair! Farewell,
Thou pure impiety and impious purity!
before storming out of the church, with a melodramatic vow never to love again, his immaturity revealed by his love for Hero's chaste image rather than her person.
When shocked Hero swoons, escaping into a coma, before an amazed congregation, her father, infected by the slander and burning with shame, falls into the cruel abyss of courtly code and seeks to regain his dignity with the death of his own daughter (120-127):
Wherefore? Why doth not every earthly thing
Cry shame upon her? Could she here deny
The story that is printed in her blood?
Do not live, Hero, do not ope thine eyes;
For, did I think thou wouldst not quickly die,
Thought I thy spirits were stronger than they shames,
Myself would, on the rearward of reproaches,
Strike at thy life.
He lapses into self-pity; he cannot believe the princes could lie. Only the friar, Benedick, and Beatrice show any concern for Hero, the real victim. Beatrice instantly recognizes Hero's innocence and her eight words, "0, on my soul my cousin is belied!," prepare us for the dialogue she will have with Benedick at the end of this scene.
The friar's innate wisdom and long experience in dealing with his flock gives him another point of view (155-170):
Hear me a little;
For I have only been silent so long
And given way unto this course of fortune
By noting of the lady. I have marked
A thousand blushing apparitions
To start into her face, a thousand innocent shames
In angel whiteness beat away those blushes,
And in her eye there hath appeared a fire
To burn the errors that these princes hold
Against her maiden truth. Call me a fool;
Trust not my reading nor my observations,
Which with experimental seal doth warrant
The tenor of my book; trust not my age.
My reverance, calling, nor divinity
If this sweet lady lie not guiltless here
Under some biting error.
Leonato cannot accept this readily since, holding to courtly code, he is ready to destroy whoever harmed him. Benedick astutely recognizes the error to be the practice of John, the Bastard. The benign hoax Father Francis suggests gives Leonato an immediate means of saving face and the experimental medicine he suggests for Claudio is guilt. We, the audience, look forward to seeing his remorse paraded before us.
The scene becomes poignant as everyone leaves the church except Benedick and Beatrice, still weeping for her cousin. The other characters have been exposed and we've been waiting for about a half-hour of playing time since Benedick and Beatrice recognized they were in love for this private moment. This is the climactic scene in the play when Benedick and Beatrice first confess their love for each other. Shakespeare used suspense and careful timing to bring us here and the rejection of Hero prepared us emotionally for its intimacy and intensity. Their crisis will counterpoint the one we have just witnessed and completely polarize the two plots. This is the point of greatest intensity in the play.
Benedick is the first to break through the wit-defended reserve that has kept them apart (267-272):
Benedick: I do love nothing in the world so well as you. Is not that strange?
Beatrice: As strange as the thing I know not. It were as possible for me to say I loved nothing so well as you. But believe me not; and yet I lie not. I confess nothing, nor I deny nothing. I am sorry for my cousin.
He renews his avowal of love and Beatrice answers, "I love you with so much of my heart that none is left to protest." Then he makes his fatal error:
Benedick: Come, bid me do anything for thee.
Beatrice: Kill Claudio.
The comedic element of the play, subdued until this moment, momentarily pops back into place when Benedick, who offered to do anything that Beatrice wanted, refuses the very first thing she asks. But Beatrice cannot be happy in her love until her kinswoman is vindicated, and she displays the full depth and range of her emotional landscape to Benedick. In that context, this terse dialogue takes place:
Benedick: Think you in your soul the Count Claudio hath wronged Hero?
Beatrice: Yea, as sure as I have a thought or a soul
Benedick is engaged and leaves to seek out Claudio. He has passed his first test, which is to choose between his love for Beatrice and his friendship for Claudio.
Benedick and Beatrice's meeting, originally designed to furnish sport for their superficial friends, has occurred in a context of crisis and suffering. Their direct speech has reached the level of sincerity and they alone have resisted Don John's evil and agreed to vindicate Hero.
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