Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 555
Sexton (Francis Seacoal): town clerk, a learned writer who, taking down the examination of Borachio and Conrade, recognizes the importance of its contents and immediately delivers it to Leonato
This scene takes place at the jail. Dogberry, under the direction of the sexton, examines Borachio and Conrade. Speaking directly into Borachio's ear, Dogberry accuses him and Conrade of false knavery, which Borachio denies. The first watch and Seacoal testify that they heard Borachio confess to receiving a thousand ducats from Don John for slandering Hero. The sexton announces that Don John fled after Hero was accused and refused and that Hero, upon the grief of this, suddenly died. He directs the constable to bind the men and bring them to Leonato's and leaves immediately to show the examination to the governor. About to be bound, Conrade calls Dogberry an ass. Scandalized, Dogberry wants all to remember that he is an ass, although it will not be written down.
It is part of Shakespeare's genius to let the action of this play begin its fall with a new comic vision. Considered one of "the funniest scenes ever written" (Joseph Papp), this is where the final block of the play's action, which will resolve the polarized plots, begins.
Dogberry's opening line is, "Is our whole dissembly appeared?" We can imagine that he wears his very best judicial gown. Formal, saturnine, Conrade is immediately annoyed by him, presumably for being addressed as "sirrah' a contemptuous extension of sire, used to address inferiors. Dogberry's swearing-in ceremony would panic any lawyer:
Dogberry: Masters, do you serve God?
Conrade: Borachio. Yea sir, we hope.
Dogberry: Write down that they hope they serve God; and write God first, for God should go before such villains!
Fortunately, the sexton understands judicial procedure and moves the examination along by having the watch called as the accusers. This doesn't stop Dogberry's tangents and he keeps close watch that each word elicited is written down. As he hears the testimony of Seacoal, seemingly for the first time (which would explain why he didn't know the importance of his prisoners when he spoke to Leonato), he tells the villains, "Thou wilt be condemned into everlasting redemption for this." The sexton confirms the events the watch testified to and leaves immediately to bring the examination to Leonato. Timing is still important to the action and Leonato must be prepared to move promptly.
As Dogberry is about "to opinion" them (translation: tie up), Conrade calls him a coxcomb and he is shocked at this stab to his office. But when Conrade calls him an ass, our petit bourgeois clown is beside himself, and his world of big words collapses (74-86):
I am a wise fellow, and, which is more, an officer;
and, which is more, a householder; and, which is
more, as pretty a piece of flesh as any is in
Messina; and one that knows the law, go to; and a
rich fellow enough, go to; and a fellow that hath
had losses; and one that hath two gowns and
everything handsome about him. Bring him away.
O, that I had been writ down an ass!
He parodies the "much ado" of the other characters in his self-important concern for the outward trappings of status and in his inability to grasp a clear thought.
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