Acknowledgement: This work has been summarized using The Complete Works of Shakespeare Updated Fourth Ed., Longman Addison-Wesley, ed. David Bevington, 1997. Quotations are for the most part taken from that work, as are paraphrases of his commentary.
Overall Impression: I especially enjoyed this play, its wit, humor, and satisfying language.
Per Bevington: One of the mature festive romantic comedies. Celebrates combative wit. Major motifs are the mask and overhearing. Combines two contrasting plots, the battle between the sexes with Beatrice and Benedict, & the more conventional romance of Hero and Claudius. Draws on Bandello's Novelle, Ariosto's Orlando Furioso, The Faerie Queen, etc.
Messina (Sicily), before Leonato's house. Leonato, Governor of Messina receives a message that his friend Don Pedro, Prince of Aragon, is returning from a military campaign, accompanied by the young Florentine, Count Claudio, Signor Benedick, of Padua, and others. Beatrice, Leonato's niece, nonchalantly asks about Benedick. Leonato says there is a merry war between B & B. The company arrives including Don Pedro's bastard brother Don John. B & B exchange barbs. Leonato invites them all to stay a month. Claudio has spied Hero, Leonato's only daughter and heir, and asks Benedick for his opinion—Benedick replies with faint praise comparing her to Beatrice. Benedick trusts no women and vows he will die a bachelor. Don Pedro [improbably] offers to assist Claudio in wooing Hero while masked.
Leonato's house. Antonio informs his brother Leonato that a man of his has overheard the Prince and Claudio planning to woo Hero, and L. decides to inform Hero.
Same. Don John and his follower Conrade discuss John's melancholy and resentful attitude over his brother, though Don Pedro has recently taken him back into his good graces. Another of John's followers, Borachio, arrives and informs John of the planned wooing of Hero about which he has overheard. John sees in this the opportunity to do evil.
Same. Leonato has noted John's foul manner. He chides Beatrice to be less shrewd in manner to land a husband, to which she makes various witty remarks. He also coaches Hero how to respond to the prince. The masked revelers arrive. Don Pedro (masked) walks with Hero, Balthasar [more likely Borachio] walks with Margaret (Hero's gentlewoman), Ursula (another of Hero's gentlewomen) walks with the masked Antonio. B&B walk (he masked) and she disparages Benedick as a dull fool. Don John notes his brother's advances on Hero and speaks to the masked Claudio about this to provoke his jealousy—he tells him that Don Pedro is enamored for her. Claudio immediately loses trust in Don Pedro. Benedick arrives and teases Claudio about Don Pedro, but Claudio is in no mood for teasing and leaves. Benedick ponders why Beatrice called him a fool. Don Pedro arrives and Benedick informs him that Claudio believes Don Pedro has stolen Hero for himself. Benedick bemoans the poor treatment and verbal abuse he has received from Beatrice. She arrives with Claudio and B&B parry more. After Benedick leaves, she alludes to a past love affair they had in which she gave him twice the heart he gave in return and was falsely treated. She does not wish to be the mother of fools. Claudio looks dejected but Don Pedro reassures him and says he has won Hero for him and that he should name the wedding date. Hero (who has returned earlier) and Claudio kiss. Beatrice declines an advance by Don Pedro and exits. Don Pedro proposes a plan to Leonato, Hero, and Claudio to induce B & B to fall in love.
Same. Don John learns of the marriage plan, and conspires with the evil Borachio to delude his brother and Claudio by proving to them that Hero actually loves Borachio. He arranges to have them overhear him talking to Margaret at a window as if the lovers were actually Hero and Borachio. John agrees to pay Borachio 1000 ducats for this despicable act.
The garden. Benedick muses about how lovers make fools of themselves. He names what ideal features the woman he loved would have to possess. He hides when Don Pedro, Leonato, and Claudio come by. Balthasar sings a song about the unfaithfulness of men ("Sigh no more..."). The three allow Benedick to overhear about Beatrice's alleged love for him and that she will die if he does love her. Claudio advises them to not tell Benedick as he will only mock her. Benedick marvels at what he has heard and resolves to be horribly in love with her, excusing himself from his previous vow to die a bachelor. Beatrice arrives to call him to dinner, and he interprets her brusque manner in a new light, assuming she speaks with a double meaning.
The garden. Hero, Margaret, Ursula are intentionally overheard by Beatrice. They discuss Benedick's love for her, that he will not confess it for fear that she will ridicule him, and they resolve to advise him not to discuss his love with Beatrice. Hero proposes to slander Beatrice to him to keep him from loving her, but Ursula says that Beatrice will not be so fooligh as to pass him up. Beatrice, to herself, resolves to requite his love.
The house. Benedick confesses to Don Pedro and Claudio that his feelings have changed and they taunt him. Don John arrives to tell Don Pedro and Claudio of Hero's supposed disloyalty and invites them to witness it with him that night (the wedding is to be the next day.) Claudio decides to shame her at the wedding if the accusation proves true.
A street at night. Dogberry (the comical constable in charge of the watch) enters with his partner, Verges (the Headborough or parish constable), and the first watch (unnamed). They engage in a humorous discussion of their supposed duties. George Seacoal (the second watch), joins them (or probably was already with them). After Dogberry and Verges leave, George Seacoal and the first watch remain, planning to sit on the church bench until 2 AM and then leave [the presence simultaneously of both the first and second watch may be intentionally absurd]. Borachio and Conrade enter, and the watchmen hide. Borachio tells Conrade of the offer for 1000 ducats, and how he has wooed Margaret at Hero's window, with her answering to Hero's name [perhaps she thought this was a joke or playful wooing]. Claudio and Don Pedro had witnessed this and Claudio had stormed away angrily. George Seacoal and the first watch arrest them.
Leonato's house, 5 AM. Hero discusses her wedding dress with Margaret and Ursula and calls for Beatrice. Hero has a heavy heart, but the women make light of it. Beatrice arrives and they tease her about Benedick, suggesting she is in love.
Leonato's house, same morning. Dogberry and Verges ask Leonato to accompany them as they interrogate the two men apprehended, but Leonato asks they report the findings to him instead.
A church, same morning. The wedding party assembles before Friar Francis. Claudio spurns Hero, telling Leonato to take her back, that she has been unfaithful and is a whore, to which Don Pedro concurs. Hero denies talking to a man in the window the previous night and faints. John, Don Pedro, and Claudio leave. Leonato rebukes Hero and says "Let her die". Beatrice comes to Hero's defense, suspecting she is falsely accused. The Friar suggests a plan, believing the Prince and Claudio have made a mistake, and Benedick suspects John is behind the problem. The Friar suggests that Hero conceal herself ("die to live"), and that her death be announced, in order to change the slander to remorse by the guilty party and restore Claudio's love. After the others leave, Benedick declares his love to Beatrice and after some hesitation, she declares the same—but she wants him to kill Claudio, and is incensed that he refuses, saying of Claudio "O God, that I were a man! I would eat his heart in the marketplace." Benedick eventually agrees to challenge Claudio to a duel or fight.
The jail, same morning. Constables Dogberry & Verges and town clerk/sexton Francis Seacoal interrogate Borachio and Conrade. They hear from the unnamed first watchman plus George Seacoal of the conversation overheard regarding the ducats from Don John, etc. The sexton informs them that Don John has secretly stolen away and that Hero has died. They determine to present the case to Leonato. Conrade, who claims to be a gentleman, calls Dogberry an ass.
Near Leonato's house. Antonio tries to counsel the grief-stricken Leonato, but he cannot be consoled. He suspects that Hero has been betrayed. Don Pedro and Claudio enter and Leonato angrily accuses them of slander and false accusation—Claudio refuses to fight the old man. Antonio also offers to fight him, and Leonato tries to restrain him. Don Pedro maintain the justness of their accusation. After the older men leave, Benedick arrives and challenges Claudio to fight with swords, to which Claudio eventually agrees. Benedick informs them that Don John has fled, then leaves. Dogberry, Verges, and the First Watch arrives with Borachio and Conrade and inform Don Pedro and Claudio of their slanders—they are filled with regret and Claudio envisions the sweet Hero once again. Leonato and Antonio arrive and are also informed of the treachery. Claudio offers to accept whatever revenge the father wishes, and he has him agree to marry on the following day Antonio's (fictitious) daughter who is "almost the copy" of Hero. Leonato also plans to punish Margaret, but Borachio states she was not guilty of any intentional wrongdoing. Leonato pays a reward to Dogberry.
Leonato's garden. Benedick asks Margaret to help him compose a sonnet or other speech to Beatrice and they exchange witty dialog. Benedick gives up, deciding that he was not made for rhyming. Beatrice arrives and is angry to learn that only words passed between Benedick and Claudio—Benedick assures her that they will soon fight. He asks her what about him caused her to fall in love—she says "I love thee against my will". Benedick says "Thou and I are too wise to woo peaceably" and the repartee continues. Ursula arrives to inform them that Hero was falsely accused.
Churchyard, before dawn the next morning. Claudio sadly reads and hangs an epitaph to Hero proclaiming she died of undeserved slanders and Balthasar sings a sad song.
Leonato's house, same morning. Friar Francis and Leonato discuss the events with Margaret, Ursula, Antonio, Benedick, and Hero. Hero and Beatrice are to withdraw and reappear masked when Claudio appears. Benedick asks Leonato for his permission for him to marry his niece. Leonato consents and alludes to the plot to make them fall in love, but Benedick is unaware of it. Don Pedro and Claudio arrive and taunt Benedick further for the cuckoldry they assume he will experience. Antonio presents Claudio with his new bride. He consents to marry her without seeing her face, after which Hero is unveiled to his and Don Pedro's amazement. Benedick and Beatrice spar more and are noncommittal about their love for each other, but Claudio produces Benedick's sonnet and Margaret produces incriminating papers proving her love. Benedick agrees to have her and she also, "to save your life". Benedick tells Don Pedro that he will not be affected by any further taunts about his decision to marry. They all dance. A messenger informs the party that Don John has been captured.