The final act of Much Ado About Nothing begins with the old man Leonato being counseled by his even older brother Antonio to not “second grief // Against (him)self” (V.i.2-3), or else it will kill him.
So it seems that Leonato has been in–with apologies to another author named William, this one Goldman, not Shakespeare–a pit of despair, as the next thirty lines can attest. But his brother tells him, “Yet bend not all the harm upon yourself. // Make those that do offend you suffer too” (V.i.39-40). And here we see that his position that Hero is the villain here is softened:
And that shall Claudio know; so shall the prince
And all of them that thus dishonor her
And just by chance (or plotting by Willy S.), Claudio and Don Pedro happen by. The old brothers then challenge and berate the two younger men. In fact, their display (citing Hero’s faked “death, slandered to death by villains” [V.i.88]) is so over-the-top, that as I read it, I’m thinking they’re enjoying this release from their anger; in performance, they might even be seen laughing to each other when they leave the two younger men behind.
If Claudio thought that the entrance of Benedick would change the tone from challenge and attacks to fun and jokes, he thought wrong, as Benedick starts with civil but clipped answers to their questions but finally builds to an aside to Claudio:
After the prince and then Claudio try to change the subject to Beatrice, Benedick turns his attention to Don Pedro:
If Benedick’s intention had been to keep the challenge to Claudio private between the two men, something changed his mind. Maybe it was the Beatrice banter, wordplay that no longer matters to Benedick since he has already stated his love to her. Or maybe it’s in the middle of his own speech when he shifts intentions. He needs to give some–preferably polite–reason for leaving the prince’s company. He uses Don John’s flight as his excuse. But since Benedick has broached the subject, he might as well follow through. Regardless, he makes his declaration and accusation then exits, leaving the two men stunned but still trying to make light of the matter.
This attempt at levity seems to escalate with the appearance of Dogberry, accompanied by both members of the watch as well as the captured Conrad and Borachio. Only Borachio confesses the deception and his “villainy” (V.i.231), and needless to say, the prince and his companion are–to use the British slang–gobsmacked.
Runs not this speech like iron through your blood?
I have drunk poison whiles he utter’d it.
Enter Leonato. The old man calls for the villain, and when Borachio attempts to take the lone blame, Leonato corrects him, tearing into Don Pedro and Claudio with scathing sarcasm:
Here stand a pair of honorable men;
A 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.
Both men take responsibility and are willing to under go Leonato’s “revenge” (V.i.263), any act that might “satisfy” (V.i.267) the old man. Hero’s grieving father then outlines his demands: inform the people of Messina of Hero’s innocence, hang an epitaph for her on the family monument, sing that epitaph to her grave, and–oh, yeah–marry his unknown-until-now niece, one who is “almost he copy of” (V.i.280) Hero. The men agree, and the very long first scene of the last act ends.
The second scene is a relatively short one, beginning with Benedick asking for Margaret’s help with the writing a (love) speech to Beatrice. Some bawdy banter follows, but she doesn’t help him beyond saying that she’ll go and get Beatrice for him. In Margaret’s absence Benedick ponders his weaknesses as a poet (as he was “not born under a rhyming planet” [V.ii.39-40]). When Beatrice arrives, there seems almost to be a resumption of their “merry war” until Benedict states that he has challenged Claudio, after which her tone softens and they talk about their love for each other. It’s playful but tinged with a history of their friction (and a touch of bawdy). They are then interrupted by Ursula who delivers the news of the confession, the flight of the bastard, and the duping of Don Pedro and Claudio.
The very short third scene recounts the hanging of the epitaph on the family monument.
The last scene of the play is much like that of As You Like It: the gathering for the wedding of Claudio and the mystery cousin.
Don Pedro and Claudio arrive, followed by the women, veiled/masked. Claudio asks for the hand of his new bride to be:
Give me your hand: before this holy friar,
I am your husband, if you like of me.
And when I lived, I was your other wife:
And when you loved, you were my other husband.
One Hero died defiled, but I do live,
And surely as I live, I am a maid.
The former Hero! Hero that is dead!
She died, my lord, but whiles her slander lived.
Got to love the way that Hero and her father are able to get their digs in on Claudio and Don Pedro, proclaiming her innocence and ending her slander.
When the friar calls for the group to head to the chapel for the ceremony, Benedick calls for Beatrice. The two then begin to dance around their love, denying what everyone there (and in the theater) knows to be true. And the reason why the onstage characters know the true feeling is because they have written proof–Benedick’s “halting sonnet” (V.iv.87) and Beatrice’s letter “containing her affection unto Benedick” (V.iv.90). That resolved, they all can head to the ceremony, and the happy ending is solidified by the news in the play’s final lines that Don John has been captured, and will be available to be punished.
A joyous conclusion for all, save for the villain (and possibly for his brother, as he doesn’t have a mate).