When we last left Messina, Don John the Bastard was planning mischief against his brother and Claudio, and as Act Two of Much Ado About Nothing begins, the lil’ bastard is the focus of Leonato’s family’s discussion. John is so sour (“tartly” [II.i.3]) and “melancholy” (II.i.5), that Beatrice needs an anti-acid. Still, she feels that
It seems that, like Benedick with Beatrice (I.i.181-4), Beatrice’s thoughts of the opposite gender immediately circle back to Benedick.
A little of the nudge-nudge-wink-wink bawdy is bandied, and Beatrice proclaims her dilemma:
She needs someone who is both not more than a youth and less than a man… so, she needs a man-child? Sounds a
little lot like Benedick, to me.
The discussion moves to marriage. Leonato tells his daughter, “Daughter, remember what I told you: if the prince do solicit you in that kind, you know your answer” (II.i.61-3). She may know it, but as Beatrice speaks before Hero can respond, we don’t know what that answer is.
And within lines, the maskers arrive, and we see the women being paired off with men: Hero with Don Pedro, Margaret with Balthasar, Ursula with Antonio. And Benedick approaches Beatrice, and though we aren’t privy to the opening of their dialogue, we do know what had been said–Beatrice has been told by the disguised Benedick that he had heard she “was disdainful” (II.i.123), which she is sure came from Benedick. When he claims not to know who Benedick is, she informs him with insults.
Meanwhile, Don John approaches the disguised Claudio and asks if he is Benedick. Claudio, keeping his masquerade, says yes, and the Bastard warns him that Don Pedro loves Hero, and asks him to “dissuade (the prince) from (Hero, as) she is no equal to his birth” (II.i.156-7). Even though Claudio is in on Pedro’s plan, he believes the Bastard and his companions, and, after they leave, he swears off both the prince and Hero.
Benedick arrives to tell Claudio that the prince has won Hero’s love (and it’s a little unclear–since Benedick wasn’t there in Act One for the planning of the wooing–if Benedick thinks Pedro did it for Claudio or just did it), and Claudio exits, leaving Benedick to ponder his meeting with Beatrice, for which he swears revenge. Pedro enters, looking for Claudio, and Benedick tells the prince that Claudio left upset that the prince won Hero’s love. The prince’s response is an almost too-cool “I will but teach them to sing, and restore them to the owner” (II.i.220-1). Obviously, he doesn’t feel the need to fill Benedick in on the previous plan; and there really isn’t much time, as they’re soon joined by the Messina clan and Claudio, prompting Benedick’s escape from Beatrice. This escape spurs the prince to tell Beatrice that she has “lost the heart” (II.i.261) of Benedick. And we get an inkling of the history of our pair of B’s:
Methinks, we’re going to need to delve further into that one later in the month.
Though Claudio is–to use a term to describe the Bastard earlier–“tartly,” he is relieved to find that Hero has been won for him, and with Hero fitted with a husband, Pedro tells Beatrice that it’s time to “get” her one.
I would rather have one of your father’s getting. Hath your grace ne’er a brother like you? Your father got excellent husbands, if a maid could come by them.
Will you have me, lady?
No, my lord, unless I might have another for working-days: your grace is too costly to wear every day. But, I beseech your grace, pardon me: I was born to speak all mirth and no matter.
I’m thinking Beatrice might want to file this exchange under: “Whoops.” Flirtation, followed by question (whether the prince is sincere or not is immaterial at this point), followed by clumsy flight. Why does she need to flee? Is it because she really does want Benedick? (and what then can be said of his own flight?)
After her escape, the remaining happy ones, devise what we would have called a “sport” in As You Like It:
And if they succeed?
From that happy note, the second scene takes us to a less happy man: John the Bastard, finding solace in Borachio’s promise that he can still foil the marriage. His plan is to use Hero’s waiting gentlewoman as a pawn in a plan to dub Hero a wanton, and, in so doing, “misuse the prince, … vex Claudio, … undo Hero and kill Leonato” (II.ii.36-7).
The third and final scene of the act shows us the first step in the Love Gods’ happier plan to bring together the mere mortals, Benedick and Beatrice. The scene opens with Benedick wondering if he will ever marry, like Claudio. When he sees “the prince and Monsieur Love” (II.iii.33), he hides to avoid them. Of course, they are aware of his presence, and they begin their plan: to have him hear that Beatrice loves him, but is too proud to say anything. Benedick suspects a trick, but Leonato, “the white-bearded fellow speaks it: knavery cannot, sure, hide himself in such reverence” (II.iii.117-9). Mission: accomplished.
Benedick is a changed man. Though he has “railed so long against marriage… the world must be peopled” (II.iii.225, 229-30), he decides
So when Beatrice arrives to call him to dinner, she has no idea why he is acting the way he is, and responds to him in her normally rude manner. He is a changed man, however, and he can now read “double meaning(s)” (II.iii.25) into what in her mind has only a single, “knife’s point” (II.iii.242) meaning. Benedick wants to see the good since he he feels that he would be “a villain if (he does) not love her” (II.iii.249).
And the second act, with its domino-setting, hiding behind masks and bushes, plus listening and overhearing, ends on a happy note.