When Much Ado About Nothing opens, the scene is the estate of Leonato, who according to the list of characters is the Governor of Messina, and he, his daughter Hero, his niece Beatrice, and a messenger enter. We immediately learn that Don Pedro of Aragon is coming to Messina. Leonato asks if there were many killed the recent military “action” (I.i.6), and we learn that only a few of rank (“sort” [I.i.7]) and “none of name” (I.i.7).
Leonato then asks about “a young Florentine called Claudio” (I.i.10-1). How does Leonato know him? We don’t know for sure. Yet. The messenger reveals that Claudio has completed such acts of bravery (“feats of a lion” [I.i.15]), that he has been rewarded (“remembered” [I.i.13]) by Don Pedro. And then we learn how Leonato knows Claudio; the young man has an uncle in Messina, and the messenger recounts how the uncle was so overjoyed by the news his nephew has returned that he broke into tears. But we still don’t know anything about the war.
Beatrice interrupts and asks if a “Signor Montanto” has returned from said wars. And we get our first taste of bawdy in the play: Montanto is an upward thrust in fencing, plus there’s that whole “mounting” connotation. (Hint: it won’t be the last bit of bawdy). When the messenger says that he hasn’t heard of someone by that name, and Leonato doesn’t know of this man, Hero informs us that Beatrice is talking about Signor Benedick of Padua. That man the messenger knows, and he tells the family that Benedict is “as pleasant as ever” (I.i.34).
Upon learning this, Beatrice begins her undercutting of the absent Benedick, an attack that Leonato says Benedick will return (“be meet with” her [I.i.43]), and he tells the messenger that
Of course, this doesn’t stop Beatrice who continues her attack, interrupted only by the entrance of Don Pedro, Claudio, Benedick, Balthasar, and “(Don) John the Bastard” (I.i.89 ff s.d.).
Leonato and Don Pedro exchange pleasantries (as well as a sexist joke regarding Leonato’s wife (and Hero’s mother), and Benedick joins in. And when he joins in, Beatrice reconvenes their “merry war”:
I wonder that you will still be talking, Signor Benedick: nobody marks you.
What, my dear Lady Disdain! are you yet living?
Is it possible disdain should die while she hath such meet food to feed it as Signor Benedick? Courtesy itself must convert to disdain, if you come in her presence.
Then is courtesy a turncoat. But it is certain I am loved of all ladies, only you excepted: and I would I could find in my heart that I had not a hard heart; for, truly, I love none.
A dear happiness to women: they would else have been troubled with a pernicious suitor. I thank God and my cold blood, I am of your humor for that: I had rather hear my dog bark at a crow than a man swear he loves me.
God keep your ladyship still in that mind! so some gentleman or other shall ‘scape a predestinate scratched face.
Scratching could not make it worse, an ’twere such a face as yours were.
Well, you are a rare parrot-teacher.
A bird of my tongue is better than a beast of yours.
I would my horse had the speed of your tongue, and so good a continuer. But keep your way, i’ God’s name; I have done.
You always end with a jade’s trick: I know you of old.
Breaking off this skirmish is Don Pedro, who announces that while the Beatrice and Bendick were talking, it was decided by the prince and Leonato that they will be spending the next month at Messina. Leonato then introduces himself to Don John, saying that since John is now “reconciled to the prince (his) brother” (I.i.148), he is now owed all of Leonato’s “duty” (I.i.149) as well. Don John doesn’t have much to say in return, but we as an audience are now getting a sense of what the war was all about.
The majority of the players onstage exit, leaving only Claudio and Benedick, and the younger man proclaims his love for Hero. Had he met her before? It’s unclear from the dialogue here (for the moment). What is clear from the conversation bandying back and forth is that this is going to be a bawdier play than As You Like It. What’s also clear is that Benedick’s mind is clearly on Beatrice as he brings her up immediately in comparison to Hero, whom Beatrice “exceeds…in as much in beauty as the first of May doth the last of December” (I.i.183-4).
Don Pedro returns and learns of Claudio’s feelings toward Hero, more bawdiness is bandied, and when Benedick leaves, the prince and Claudio speak of Hero. And here we learn that Claudio did know her before the war, when he “looked upon her with a soldier’s eye” (I.i.282), but now that he has returned, “thronging soft and delicate desires” (I.i.287) have replaced his earlier thoughts of war. Could this be why Leonato asked about Claudio at the beginning of the scene?
Don Pedro offers to speak to Hero and Leonato for Claudio, who says that he fears if he should speak himself, his “liking might too sudden seem” (I.i.298). And thus Don Pedro offers to woo Hero in Claudio’s place at the masked revels that evening.
What could go wrong?
The second scene of the opening act is a short one between Leonato and “an old man” (I.ii opening s.d.), who is assumed to be Antonio, who we see and is named in a number of scenes later in the play. We learn that this old man is Leonato’s brother and that the old man has a son. Much like Claudio’s father referenced in the first scene, this is the last we’ll hear of this character in the play.
Antonio has “strange news” (I.ii.4) for his brother:
the prince discovered to Claudio that he loved my niece your daughter and meant to acknowledge it this night in a dance: and if he found her accordant, he meant to take the present time by the top and instantly break with you of it.
Only either Antonio’s man or Antonio himself has gotten the story wrong: it’s not Don Pedro who is in love with Hero but Claudio. It’s bad listening skills on someone’s part, or the Elizabethan version of the children’s game of “telephone.” Leonato is unsure how to respond, saying that he will think of this news as “a dream…but (he) will acquaint (Hero) withal, that she may be better prepared for an answer” (I.ii.18,19-20). And you feel a domino being stood in place.
The third and final scene of the first act centers on “(Don) John the Bastard” (I.iii.opening s.d.). The Bastard is “sad” (I.ii.2), but I guess that’s what losing a war against your brother can do to a guy. He “cannot hide what (he is)… a plain-dealing villain” (I.iii.11,28-9). His comrade Conrad warns him to “not make full show of this” (I.iii.17-8) until he can do it “without controlment” (I.iii.18), or restraint.
When another of the Bastard’s companions arrives with news of “an intended marriage” (I.iii.39), the Bastard’s only question is where it can “serve for any model to build mischief on?” (I.iii.40). Unlike Antonio/his man, Borachio has the story right: the prince will woo Hero for Claudio. And the Bastard’s sadness is changed, as now he has a purpose: “If I can cross him any way, I bless myself every way” (I.ii.60-1). A plain-dealing villain, indeed.
And the plot thickens as the first act ends.