It was a hot morning in Messina. The only thing that interrupted the clear blue of the sky was the wispy smoke that rose lazily from Mount Etna. As usual, the governor’s villa was filled with young people enjoying themselves with music, sports and conversation. An ensemble of minstrels played and sang fashionable songs that they had brought from Florence: two muscular fellows wrestled, cheered on by a group of spectators of both sexes, while the garden was dotted with pairs and trios, sitting in the shade of the huge pines, chatting. Leonato’s villa was magnificent. He had carved out his vineyards and orchards from a countryside that was otherwise covered with lava and overgrown with cacti. From the lawn in front of the villa there was a spectacular view of the blue ocean and the Italian mainland. It was a place of pleasure, with tennis courts, gardens, and even a maze. Leonato considered himself to be the most fortunate of men. His life was filled with pleasure. He was surrounded by a loving family – his daughter, Hero: his niece, Beatrice: and his brother Antonio – who all lived with him. He was always ready to entertain guests and there was never a shortage of fun. Life at the governor’s villa was splendid.
On that particular summer morning an officer arrived while Leonato was in the middle of a fencing bout with Beatrice. She was winning. He was used to that and, being the man he was, he did not show any false pride, but congratulated her on each hit. The officer waited politely until they had finished. Leonato acknowledged his defeat with exaggerated bows to the cheering guests then shook the officer’s hand. The young man gave him a letter.
Leonato opened it. Hero and Beatrice watched his face as he read. His eyes opened wide then the creases around them were animated as he grinned delightedly. He held the letter up high as the young people gathered around him.
‘I learn from this letter, that Don Pedro of Arragon is arriving in Messina today,’ he said. A wave of excitement swept round the group and there was a buzz of anticipation.
‘He must be very close by now,’ the messenger told them. ‘He wasn’t more than nine miles away when I left him.’
Don Pedro was an old friend of Leonato’s. His military campaigns led him far afield and his return to Europe always brought him through Messina. His visits were high points in the life of the governor’s villa.
‘How many gentlemen have they lost in this action?’ said Leonato.
‘Oh, very few of any rank,’ the messenger told him, ‘and no one well-known.’
‘It’s a double victory then,’ said Leonato, ‘to bring a full complement home.’ He read the letter again. ‘I see here that Don Pedro heaps praise on a young Florentine called Claudio.’
‘Much deserved too,’ said the officer, ‘and decorated by Don Pedro. He has conducted himself well beyond the promise of his age, performing the feats of a lion in the guise of a lamb.’ The young man laughed. ‘In fact, he went so far beyond expectation that you mustn’t expect me to tell you how.’
‘He has an uncle here in Messina who will be very happy to hear that,’ said Leonato.
‘He already knows. When I arrived here I went to him first, with a letter. And he was indeed overjoyed: to the point of tears, in fact.’
‘He cried, did he?’
‘Good,’ said Leonato. ‘Tears of joy are the most genuine kind, and so much better than tears of sorrow.’
‘Excuse me, sir,’ said Beatrice, who had been listening with great interest, ‘has Signior Show-off survived the wars?’
The officer looked puzzled. ‘I’m sorry, madam, I don’t know anyone of that name. No, there’s no-one of that name in the army.’
Leonato was puzzled too. ‘Who are you talking about?’ he said.
Hero knew who her cousin was referring to. ‘She means Signior Benedick of Padua,’ she said.
‘Oh him!’ The messenger laughed. ‘Yes, he’s returned, and just as pleasant as ever.’
‘He once set up an archery tournament here between himself and Cupid,’ said Beatrice. ‘Cupid never showed up of course, so my uncle’s jester took his place and the two of them had a ridiculous shooting contest with each other.’
Leonato nodded vigorously, remembering the occasion.
‘But tell me,’ said Beatrice, ‘how many did he kill and then eat during these wars? Or rather, how many did he kill and bring back with him? Because I promised to eat every man he killed.’
‘Honestly, niece,’ said Leonato, ‘you goad Signior Benedick too much, but he’ll get even, you mark my words.’ He winked at Hero.
The messenger was becoming even more bewildered. He wondered what the gallant and popular Signior Benedick had done to deserve this attack from such a beautiful woman. ‘He fought bravely in these wars, madam,’ he said.
Beatrice showed him an astonished face. ‘You mean you had all those rotting bodies and he helped to eat them! He’s a very brave eater: he’s got an excellent appetite and will guzzle anything.’
The messenger laughed. ‘And he’s a good soldier too, lady,’ he said.
‘A good soldier when it comes to conquering ladies but how is he with men?’
‘A gentleman among gentlemen and a man among men, stuffed full of all the qualities a man needs.’
Some of the girls giggled and Leonato shook his finger at them in mock reprimand.
‘I agree that he’s a stuffed man,’ she said, ‘but stuffed with what? Don’t answer that, we’re all sinners in our own way.’
‘You must excuse my niece,’ said Leonato. ‘There’s a kind of love hate relationship between her and Signior Benedick. They never meet without a battle of wits between them.’
‘And he never wins,’ said Beatrice. ‘In our last skirmish four of his five wits went limping off and now he has to make do with only one, and that’s barely enough to keep him warm – not enough to make him as bright as his horse, hardly enough to make him recognisable as human. But tell me, who’s his bosom friend these days? He takes up with a new one every month.’
‘You’re exaggerating,’ said the messenger.
‘Not at all,’ she said. ‘He wears his allegiances as he wears his hat, always changing its shape according to the latest fashion.’
‘I can see he’s not in your good books,’ said the messenger.
‘No, and if he were I would burn my library. But tell me, who is his latest friend? Is there no young scrapper that he’s currently corrupting?’
‘He spends most of his time with Claudio, the young man mentioned in Don Pedro’s letter.’
‘Oh Lord!’ Beatrice shook her head. ‘He’ll infect him like a disease – Signior Show-off is more easily caught than the plague, and the infected eventually goes mad. God help the noble Claudio if he’s caught the Benedick: it will cost him a thousand pounds to be cured.’
The messenger laughed nervously. ‘I’d better stay friends with you, madam.’
‘Do that, good friend,’ she said.
‘Well at least you won’t go mad!’ said Leonato.
‘No,’ she said, laughing. ‘Not until we have a heat wave in January!’
A cloud of dust appeared in the valley below them. The messenger pointed and everyone ran to the viewing platform that Leonato had built so that he could look down directly on the city. The cloud came closer and they were able to make out five horsemen, galloping furiously. They watched as the horsemen approached, clapping and cheering them on. The five began ascending the winding road up to the villa. Another dust cloud followed: it was the rest of their party. Leonato led the way to the stables and ten minutes later the horsemen were there, all five in white uniforms. They dismounted and their leader, Don Pedro, embraced Leonato.
‘Good Signior Leonato,’ he said, ‘have you come to meet your trouble? The usual thing is to avoid trouble but you seek it out.’
‘Your grace is never a trouble to my house,’ said Leonato. ‘No trouble at all, always a pleasure. And every time you leave I’m sad because happiness goes with you.’
‘You embrace trouble too willingly,’ said Don Pedro. He looked around, smiling at the impressed young faces. Hero was standing beside her father. ‘This is your daughter, I take it?’ he said.
Leonato put his arm around her. ‘So her mother always told me.’
One of the party came forward and shook Leonato’s hand. ‘Did you doubt it that you asked her?’ he said.
Leonato laughed. ‘No, Signior Benedick. You were a child at the time.’
When the laughter had subsided Don Pedro slapped Benedick on the back. ‘You deserved that, Benedick. It shows the kind of man you are. To tell you the truth, the lady fathered herself. Don’t worry, madam, because you look like your father.’
‘As like him as she is, I don’t think she would be him for all Messina.’ said Benedick.
Beatrice, who had been standing among the other young people, joined her cousin and Leonato.
‘I’m surprised that you are still talking, Signior Benedick,’ she said, ‘since nobody’s taking any notice.’
At seeing her Benedick feigned great surprise. ‘What, my dear Miss High and Mighty? Are you still alive?’
‘Is it possible that high and mightiness should die as long she has such nutritious food to feed on as Signior Benedick is? Courtesy itself would convert to high and mightiness if you came near her.’
‘Courtesy is a traitor then,’ said Benedick, ‘but one thing is certain: I am loved by all ladies except you, and I wish I could find it in my heart that I didn’t have such a hard heart, for to tell you the truth I don’t love anyone.’
‘That’s a relief to women,’ said Beatrice, ‘otherwise they would have been bothered by a pernicious suitor. I thank God that I’m cold-blooded. I’m like you in that. I would rather hear my dog bark at a crow than hear a man swear he loves me.’
‘May God keep your ladyship in that frame of mind forever,’ said Benedick, ‘so that some gentleman or other will escape the fate of getting his face scratched.’
‘Scratching couldn’t make it worse if it were a face like yours.’
‘Well, you’re real chatterer, a parrot.’
‘A bird with a tongue like mine is better than an animal with one like yours,’ she said.
‘I wish my horse had the speed of your tongue and was as good at keeping going,’ he said, ‘but get along with you in God’s name. I’ve finished.’
‘You always end in a pathetic way: I know you of old,’ she said.
While this encounter was going on, providing entertainment for the guests, Leonato and Don Pedro had been talking a little apart from the others. They came forward now. ‘Claudio and Signior Benedick,’ said Don Pedro, ‘my dear friend Leonato has invited you all. I’ve told him we’ll stay for at least a month and he heartily prays that something will happen to keep us here longer. I swear he’s no hypocrite and that he prays from his heart.’
‘If you swear that, my lord, you won’t swear in vain,’ said Leonato.
One of the other two arrivals, Balthasar, a singer, was already entertaining some of the young guests. The fifth, a tall young man, had stood apart from the others, apparently reluctant to join in. He was Don John, the illigitimate brother of Don Pedro. Leonato smiled warmly at him and bowed. ‘Let me welcome you, my lord,’ he said, ‘as you’ve been reconciled to the prince, your brother. I owe you my duty.’
Don John acknowledged him with a brief nod. ‘Thank you,’ he said. ‘I’m not a man of many words but I thank you.’
Leonato turned back to Don Pedro and indicated the house. ‘Lead on, if you please, your grace,’ he said.
Benedick and Claudio didn’t follow. Instead, they took the path that led to the gardens.
‘Benedick,’ said Claudio, ‘did you see Signior Leonato’s daughter!’
‘I saw her but I didn’t look at her.’
‘Isn’t she a sweet and pure young lady?’
Benedick laughed. ‘Are you asking me, as you should, for my honest opinion, or do you want me to talk as I usually do about women? As a professed enemy to them?’
‘No please,’ said Claudio, ‘be serious.’
‘Well then,’ said Benedick, ‘she’s too short for a high praise, too brown for a fair praise and too small for a great praise. The only positive thing I can say about her is that if she looked other than the way she does she would be unattractive, and not being what she isn’t, but what she is… I don’t like her.’
‘You think I’m joking,’ said Claudio. ‘I beg of you, tell me if you like her.’
‘Do you want to buy her that you’re asking so much about her?’
Claudio stopped and turned his face to the sky. ‘Could all the money in the world buy such a jewel?’
‘Yes, and a case to put it in too. But come on, are you being serious? Or are you mocking? Come on, how am I supposed to read you so that I can match your mood?’
‘To me she is the sweetest lady I’ve ever seen,’ said Claudio.
‘I can still see without spectacles and I don’t see any such thing,’ said Benedick. ‘There’s her cousin, and if she wasn’t possessed by the devil, she would exceed her in beauty as much as the first of May does the end of December. But I hope you don’t have any intention of turning husband! Do you?’
‘I wouldn’t trust myself, even if I had sworn not to,’ said Claudio, ‘if Hero would be my wife.’
‘It’s come to this, then,’ said Benedick. ‘For God’s sake, isn’t there one man left who would protect himself from the pain of a wife’s infidelity? Will I never see a sixty year-old bachelor again? Go on then, if you have to – put your neck into a yoke and take the consequences. Spend your Sundays at home with a wife! Look, Don Pedro’s looking for you.’
‘What secret are you sharing, that’s stopped you from coming to Leonato’s?’ said Don Pedro, as he approached.
‘I want your grace to force me to tell you,’ said Benedick.
‘I order you, then,’ said Don Pedro. ‘On your allegiance, tell me.’
Benedick grinned at Claudio. ‘You see, Count Claudio?’ he said. ‘I can keep a secret as well as a dumb man – I want you to know that.’ He turned back to the prince. ‘But according to my duty…’ He raised a finger at Claudio ‘Take note, it’s my duty!’ Then to Don Pedro again ‘… he is in love.’ When Don Pedro didn’t reply he prompted him. ‘With who? It’s up to you to ask.’ When neither of his friends said anything he looked from the one to the other. ‘See how short his answer is,’ he said. He put his arm round Don Pedro’s shoulder and whispered in his ear: ‘With Hero, Leonato’s short daughter.’
Don Pedro raised an eyebrow at Claudio for confirmation. Claudio smiled nervously. ‘If it’s true, then it’s as he’s told you,’ he said.
Benedick laughed loudly at Claudio’s embarrassment. ‘It’s like the old story, my lord: “It’s not true, nor was it ever true, and God forbid that it should be.” ’
Claudio gave in. ‘If I don’t change my mind soon, God forbid that it shouldn’t be true,’ he said.
‘So be it, if you love her,’ said Don Pedro. ‘The lady is most worthy.’
‘You’re saying this to trick me, my lord,’ said Claudio.
‘I swear, I think that,’ said Don Pedro.
‘And I swear I said what I thought too,’ said Claudio.
‘And by all that swearing, my lord, I also said what I thought,’ said Benedick.
‘I do feel that I love her,’ said Claudio.
‘And I know she is worthy,’ said Don Pedro.
Benedick watched their earnest exchange. He pretended to be in despair. ‘I neither feel how she should be loved nor know in what way she is worthy,’ he said. ‘Fire couldn’t melt that opinion out of me. I’m prepared to be burnt at the stake for that belief.’
‘You’ve always been an obstinate heretic in your contempt for beauty,’ said Don Pedro.
‘And insists on keeping up the pretence,’ said Claudio.
‘That a woman conceived me, I thank her,’ said Benedick: ‘that she brought me up, I also give her my deepest thanks. but that doesn’t mean that I would like to have a hunting call played in my head or put my bugle in an invisible baldrick: all women should excuse me for that. Because I wouldn’t like to do them the wrong of mistrusting any of them I will do myself the right of trusting none of them. The conclusion is, and this is final, I will remain a bachelor.’
Don Pedro wasn’t convinced. ‘Before I die I’ll see you looking pale with lovesickness,’ he said.
‘With anger, with sickness, or with hunger, my lord,’ said Benedick, ‘but not with love. If you can prove that I would lose more blood from love than I will recover again from drinking, pick my eyes out with a songwriter’s pen and hang me up as a brothel sign in blind Cupid’s place.
‘Well,’ said Don Pedro,’ if you should ever abandon this faith you’ll be an interesting subject of discussion.’
‘If I do, hang me in a bottle like a cat, and shoot at me, and let whoever hits me be slapped on the shoulder, and called Adam.’
‘Well, time will tell,’ said Don Pedro. ‘As the saying goes, “in time even the wild bull will accept a yoke.” ’
‘The wild bull may,’ said Benedick, ‘but if the sensible Benedick ever accepts it pull the Bull’s horns off and put them on my forehead and stick up a poster like the ones they make to sell horses, saying “here you can see Benedick the married man.” ’
‘If that ever happened, you would be raving mad,’ said Claudio.
‘No, said Don Pedro, if Cupid hasn’t used all his arrows up in places where loose people gather, like Venice, you’ll be punished for this before long.’
‘It will take an earthquake,’ said Benedick
‘Well, you’ll change in time,’ said Don Pedro. ‘In the meantime, good Signior Benedick, go to Leonato’s, give him my compliments and tell him I’ll definitely be at supper because he’s gone to a lot of trouble.’
‘I think I can just about do that,’ said Benedick ‘and end with yours faithfully.’
‘With God’s blessing,’ said Claudio.
Don Pedro laughed and joined in with the joke: ‘the sixth of July, your loving friend, Benedick,’ he said.
‘Don’t mock, don’t mock,’ said Benedick. ‘Your letter endings are like the trimmings of a garment that are only loosely sewn on, so before you mock conventional letter endings examine your conscience. And so I leave you.’
Benedick sauntered off, whistling.
Claudio looked at the ground for a few moments and Don Pedro waited. Eventually Claudio looked up at him. ‘My liege,’ he said. ‘Your highness can help me now.’
‘I’m at your service,’ said Don Pedro. ‘Just tell me what I can do and you’ll see how ready I am to help.’
‘Does Leonato have a son, my lord?’
‘No child but Hero: she’s his only heir. Do you care for her, Claudio?’
‘Oh my lord,’ said Claudio, ‘when we went off on this expedition I saw her with a soldier’s eye. I liked her but I had military matters in my mind, and no thoughts of love. But now that I’ve returned those war thoughts have vacated their place in my mind. And in their place, soft and delicate desires are thronging in, all telling me how beautiful young Hero is, reminding me of how much I liked her before I went to the wars.’
Don Pedro laughed. ‘You’ll be like a real lover soon,’ he said, ‘and bore everyone with your story. If you love Hero, enjoy it. I’ll broach the subject with her, and with her father, and you shall have her.’
Claudia’s expression was a mixture of surprise and delight.
Don Pedro laughed again. ‘Isn’t that what you wanted? Isn’t that why you began to spin such eloquent words?’
‘How sensitive you are to my feelings!’ exclaimed Claudio, ‘that you understand them so well. I should have broken it to you more gradually. My falling in love like this must seem too sudden.’
‘Why?’ said Don Pedro. ‘You have to say what you think. It’s as it is: the fact is, you’re in love, and I’ll provide you with the remedy. I understand that there’s a ball tonight. I’ll wear a mask and tell the lovely Hero that I’m Claudio. I’ll declare myself to her, impress her with my intensity, and tell her I love her. Then I’ll approach her father and the result will be that she’ll be yours. So let’s do that.’