Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1545
The scene takes place in the street before the house of Leonato. Antonio tries to philosophize his brother, Leonato, out of his grief. Leonato says that his passion cannot be patched with proverbs and bids him to cease his counsel. Antonio advises him to make those who have harmed him suffer also, and Leonato vows to defend Hero's honor. At this point Claudio and Don Pedro cross their path. Both Leonato and Antonio challenge Claudio for the villainy of slandering Hero to death. Don Pedro tells them the charge against Hero was full of proof and refuses to listen further. Vowing that he will be heard, Leonato exits with his brother just as Benedick arrives.
Claudio and Don Pedro seek Benedick's wit to lift their spirits. Benedick challenges Claudio. Taking it as a jest, both Claudio and Don Pedro seek to enjoy their usual banter. Benedick tells Don Pedro that he must discontinue his company and repeats his challenge to Claudio. He informs them that Don John has fled Messina and that they killed an innocent lady. As Benedick exits, they realize that he is earnest. Don Pedro, in growing awareness, notes that his brother has fled.
The constables and the watch enter with Borachio and Conrade. Don Pedro recognizes them as his brother's men and asks Dogberry the nature of their offense. Finding Dogberry's answer too oblique to be understood, he questions Borachio. Borachio asks Don Pedro to let Count Claudio kill him and tells him that the watch overheard him confess his paid collusion in Don John's slander of Hero. Claudio now sees Hero in the light of the innocence he first loved her for.
Leonato and Antonio return with the sexton. Borachio declares sole responsibility for the death of Hero, but Leonato tells him that Don John, Don Pedro, and Claudio had a hand in it. Both Claudio and Don Pedro ask for a penance, claiming mistaking as their only sin. As penance, Leonato assigns them both the task of publicly mourning Hero and declaring her innocence. He assigns Claudio the further task of accepting his niece, sight unseen, in marriage the next morning. Dogberry takes this opportunity to tell Leonato that Conrade called him an ass and that the watch overheard the prisoners talk of another knave, one Deformed. Leonato thanks the watch and tips Dogberry. A thankful Dogberry humbly gives him leave to depart. As they leave, Don Pedro and Claudio promise to perform their penance. Leonato instructs the watch to bring the prisoners, then departs to question Margaret about her acquaintance with Borachio.
Throughout the play Shakespeare has kept us informed of the truth while his characters deceive each other (at this point the sexton is on his way to Leonato's and Hero is not dead), which puts us into a somewhat removed orientation that increases the comic value of the action. In a sense, he has manipulated us into believing we're above it all. This scene opens with a grief-stricken but wordy Leonato, speaking in verse. Were his dialogue in a tragedy, we might be teary, but knowing that he will soon have proof that his daughter was slandered we are unlikely to extend him much sympathy, which tones down his indignation to a subtly comic level. Leonato refuses to be consoled by Antonio, dismissing him with (35-37):
I pray thee, peace. I will be flesh and blood;
For there was never yet philosopher
That could endure the toothache patiently.
This echoes Benedick's toothache speech in Act III. He will take Antonio's suggestion to seek revenge, and he gets his opportunity immediately as Don Pedro and Claudio enter. The comedy leaps forward as Antonio flaunts his courage as he joins Leonato in challenging the young swordsman, knowing full well that neither Claudio nor the prince can dishonor themselves by fighting men of their advanced age. Don Pedro breaks up the mock challenge by saying a sympathetic word to Leonato, but when Don Pedro turns a cold ear to Leonato's appeal, he leaves, determined to be heard. His brother, Antonio, gives the exit a comic flourish by insinuating another challenge to come, a kind of or else. We, the audience, know all will be reconciled when Dogberry arrives. Note the dialogue change to prose at line 110, which continues until Dogberry's entrance, when it changes to a mixture of verse and prose.
Benedick enters and we know his mind; he is in his steely fighting mode. But his friends, Claudio and Don Pedro, who were seeking out his wit to lift their exhausted spirits (isolated by the renunciation) when they came across Leonato, don't get it. They take Benedick's dignified and sober expression as a joke, a masquerade to amuse them. This forces Benedick's attempts to deliver the challenge to Claudio to escalate the comedy somewhat as he takes him aside to deliver it. Claudio hears it but again doesn't understand it, and Don Pedro attempts to rag him about Beatrice. Benedick, void of levity, is firm and gentlemanly as he departs (185-190):
My Lord, for your many courtesies I thank you. I must discontinue your company. Your brother the bastard is fled from Messina. You have among you killed a sweet and innocent lady. For my Lord Lackbeard there, he and I shall meet, and till then peace be with him.
Now they know that he is earnest. And Don Pedro, in growing awareness, says, "Did he not say my brother was fled?" which is the cue for Dogberry's entrance.
The theatrical spectacle of Dogberry and Verges parading their bound prisoners, secured by the watch, will get their attention, and Don Pedro immediately recognizes his brother's men. Of course, we know what is likely to happen when he inquires after their offense, and Dogberry does not disappoint us (211-215):
Marry, sir, they have committed false report; moreover, they have spoken untruths; secondarily, they are slanders; sixth and lastly, they have belied a lady; thirdly, they have verified unjust things; and to conclude, they are lying knaves.
The obliqueness of his answer allows them a short interlude
of amusement until they find out the truth from Borachio (227-234):
What your wisdoms could not discover, these shallow fools have brought to light, who in the night overheard me confessing to this man how Don John your brother incensed me to slander the Lady Hero, how you were brought into the orchard and saw me court Margaret in Hero's garments, how you disgraced her when you should marry her.
There is an immediate tonal change. That Borachio was so converted by news of Hero's death implies that his drunken confession in Act Ill was a move in conscience. Friar Francis' curative has taken hold and to Claudio's eyes returns the pristine image of the Hero he wanted to marry. Claudio owns the sin of mistaking (sin means error, mistake, wander or stray, and in Hebrew means muddy). Dogberry reminds his men to specify that he is an ass. The scene, from Borachio's statement to this point reflects the passage of St. Paul in I Corinthians, 1:27-28:
God hath chosen the foolish things of the world to confound the wise; and God hath chosen the weak things of the world to confound the things which are mighty; and base things of the world and things which are despised, hath God chosen, yea, and things which are not, to bring to nought things that are.
This may be the source for the invention of the constable and his watch. Certainly, Dogberry's discovery is purely providential, perhaps the answer to Friar Francis' prayer.
Now Shakespeare brings Leonato and Antonio back, and full of dignity, Leonato asks, "[w]hich is the villain?" When Borachio comes forth to claim full responsibility, Leonato, as he promised in his exit earlier in the scene, is heard (259-264):
No, not so, villain, thou beliest thyself.
Here stand a pair of honorable men—
third is fled-that had a hand in it.
I thank you, princes, for my daughter's death.
Record it with your high and worthy deeds.
'Twas bravely done, if you bethink you of it.
Claudio is instantly positioned to ask for a penance, echoed by Don Pedro. Leonato's wisdom, which he must have to be in the position of governor now shows through as he assigns the comic penance of hanging up verses at the empty tomb in a public mourning and the practical penance of clearing Hero's name. But the real test of Claudio's repentance is his willingness to marry Leonato's fictional niece, sight unseen.
Borachio's vindication of Margaret is necessary to keep the action from swerving out of its steady course to the resolution. This is Dogberry's opportunity to tag on his tangential thoughts with: (299-302):
[m]oreover, sir, which indeed is not under white and black, this plaintiff here, the offender, did call me an ass. I beseech you, let it be remembered in his punishment.
He goes on to share his concern with another vagrom, one Deformed, about whom he has apparently gathered an extended dossier, again parodying the much ado of the play's plot structure which was just as unreal, before saying adieu to Leonato:
I humbly give you leave to depart; and if a merry meeting be wished, God prohibit it!
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