What a joyful sight it was! An alter had been erected on the lawn, bunting was strung between the trees, and musicians were playing the lively music that they had brought from Florence. Leonato was his old self again, busily organising the servants, who were covering the tables with food and drink. Benedick wore a brightly-coloured new suit, and was proudly holding the hand of a happy-looking Beatrice. Ursula and a subdued Margaret stood together, talking earnestly. Hero was still pale. She sat on a chair, waiting. Antonio escorted Friar Frances across the lawn. The friar shook hands with Leonato and smiled broadly.
‘Didn’t I tell you she was innocent?’ he said.
‘So are her accusers, the prince and Claudio. It was all a mistake. Margaret bears some responsibility for this, although unknowingly, as it’s emerged from my enquiry.’
‘Well I’m glad it’s all turned out so well,’ said Antonio.
‘So am I,’ said Benedick, ‘otherwise I would be honour bound to call young Claudio to a reckoning for it.’
Leonato rubbed his hands. ‘Well, daughter,’ he said, ‘you and all the women, go to your room and wait until I send for you, then come back masked.’ The women set off and Leonato turned to his brother. ‘The prince and Claudio will be here at any moment. You know what you have to do, brother. You have to be the father of the bride and give her to young Claudio.’
‘Which I’ll gladly do,’ said Antonio.
Benedick touched the friar on his shoulder. ‘Friar, I must ask you to do something,’ he said.
‘To tie me up or destroy me, one of the two. Signior Leonato, it’s a fact that your niece likes me.’
Leonato laughed. ‘With the help of my daughter. That’s true,’ said Leonato.
‘And I like her.’
‘And I think that was with my help, and the help of Claudio and the prince,’ said Leonato. ‘But what do you want?’
‘Your answer is enigmatic,’ said Benedick. ‘But what I want is that what you want will coincide with what we want: to be married today, and that’s what I want your help with, good friar.’
‘I give my blessing to that,’ said Leonato.
‘And I’ll help you,’ said the friar. ‘Here come the prince and Claudio.’
The two were accompanied by some of their officers. Behind them came several of the young friends of Hero and Beatrice.
‘Good morning prince: good morning, Claudio,’ said Leonato. ‘We’ve been waiting for you. Are you still resolved to marry my brother’s daughter today?’
‘Resolved,’ said Claudio, ‘no matter what she looks like.’
‘Go and get her, brother,’ said Leonato. ‘The friar’s waiting.’
‘Good morning, Benedick,’ said Don Pero. ‘Why, what’s the matter? Such a February face, so cold and stormy.’
‘I think he’s contemplating the wild bull,’ said Claudio. ‘But don’t worry, man: you’ll make a great cuckold.’
‘Oh will I? Some strange bull jumped on your father’s cow and conceived a calf that was very like you because you have that same bleat.’
‘I owe you for that,’ said Claudio. ‘But not now because look who’s coming.’
The women accompanying Antonio were all masked. ‘Which one is the lady I’m going to marry?’ said Claudio.
‘This one,’ said Antonio, ‘and I give her to you.’
‘Why then, she’s mine,’ said Claudio. ‘Sweet, let me see your face.’
‘No you won’t,’ said Leonato. ‘Not till you take her hand before this friar and swear to marry her.’
Claudio reached out and she placed her hand in his. ‘Before this holy friar, I’m your husband if you like me,’ he said.
‘And when I was alive I was your other bride,’ she said, and took off the mask. ‘and when you loved you were my other bridegroom.’
‘Exactly like Hero!’ exclaimed Claudio.
‘Nothing more certain,’ she said. ‘I died defiled, but I am alive, and as sure as I am alive I’m a virgin.’
‘It’s her!’ said Don Pedro. ‘Hero who’s dead!’
‘She was dead, my lord, only as long as her slanders were alive,’ said Leonato.
Claudio and Don Pedro couldn’t speak. The guests had gathered round and stood, similarly bewildered. Friar Francis laughed. ‘I can explain all this,’ he said, ‘and after the holy rites have ended I will. In the meantime just accept it and let’s go to the altar straight away.’
‘Wait a moment, friar,’ said Benedick. He looked the masked women up and down. ‘Which one is Beatrice?’ he said.
Beatrice stepped forward and removed her mask. ‘I answer to that name,’ she said. ‘What would you like?’
‘Do you love me?’ he said.
‘Well no, no more than is reasonable.’
‘Then your uncle and the prince and Claudio were deceived. They swore you did.’
‘Do you love me?’ said Beatrice.
‘Not at all. No more than is reasonable.’
‘Well then, my cousin, Margaret and Ursula are very much deceived because they swore you did.’
‘They swore that you were dying for love of me,’ said Benedick.
‘They swore that you were nearly dead for me,’ she said.
‘It doesn’t matter,’ he said. ‘So you don’t love me?’
‘Not really: only as a friend.’
Their friends had gathered around them, amused.
‘Come on cousin,’ said Leonato. ‘I’m sure you love the gentleman.’
‘And I will swear that he loves her,’ said Claudio. He waved a sheet of paper. ‘Because here’s a page in his handwriting: a limping sonnet out of his own head, written for Beatrice.’
Hero also had a sheet, which she also waved. ‘And here’s another one, stolen from my cousin’s pocket, expressing her love for Benedick.’
‘A miracle!’ said Benedick. ‘Our hands contradicting our hearts. Come then, I’ll have you, but I’m telling you, I’m only doing it out of pity.’
‘I won’t deny you,’ she said, ‘but I assure you, I’m only giving in to the pressure, and partly to save your life, because they tell me you have consumption.’
‘Quiet!’ commanded Benedick. He took hold of her. ‘I’ll stop your mouth.’ He kissed her and she submitted willingly.
Their friends applauded.
‘How are you, Benedick, the married man?’ said the prince.
‘I’ll tell you something, Prince,’ said Benedick. ‘A whole college of wisecrackers couldn’t change my mood. Do you think I care a jot for your sarcasm and clever jibes? No, a man who lives in fear of ridicule will never wear fine clothes. In short, since I have decided to marry I will take no notice of anything against it. So don’t goad me with the things I’ve said about it. Human beings are irrational creatures and that’s that. As for you, Claudio, I was thinking about thrashing you but as you’re going to be my relative, go unbruised and love my cousin.’
Claudio laughed. ‘I had rather hoped you would reject Beatrice so that I could have beaten you into marrying her, to turn you into an unfaithful husband, which I have no doubt you will be if my cousin doesn’t keep a sharp eye on you.’
Benedick put his hand out to Claudio. ‘Come, come, we are friends,’ he said. ‘Lets dance before we get married so that we can lighten our hearts and our wives’ heels.’
‘We’ll have dancing afterwards,’ said Leonato.
‘First!’ said Benedick. ‘Strike up musicians.’
As the musicians began to play and the young men took their partners, Benedick noticed Don Pedro, standing on his own. ‘Prince, you’re sad,’ he said. ‘Get yourself a wife, get a wife. There’s no walking stick more suitable than one with the potential for cuckoldry!’
A messenger interrupted them. ‘My lord,’ he told Don Pedro, ‘your brother has been captured and brought back to Messina under guard.’
‘Forget about him until tomorrow,’ said Benedick. ‘I’ll think of some dire punishment for him. Strike up pipers!’