Act Three: Ear Fires, Achy Teeth, A Mouthful of Garbles, and a Stuffed Nose

Just as the second act of Much Ado About Nothing ended with the male half of the plan by the only love gods (and what a great band name that is!), the third act begins with the female half of the scheme.

Act Three, Scene One, is where Hero, Margaret, and Ursula ensure that Beatrice’s “ear lose(s) nothing // Of the False sweet bait that (they) lay for it” (III.i.32-3). And like the men in the earlier scene, their line of attack is two-pronged: convince Beatrice that “Benedick loves Beatrice … entirely” (III.i.37), and pity Benedick, as they know that “disdain and scorn” (III.i.51) would be Beatrice’s only response. Hero laments that she cannot even tell Beatrice of the lovelorn Benedick as her cousin would only “mock (her) into air” (III.i.75).

Ironic foreshadowing alert!

Hero even goes as far as to say she’ll have to make up some “slanders” (III.i.84), to turn Benedick against Beatrice, as Hero explains: “One doth not know // How much an ill word may empoison liking” (III.i.85-6).

And their argument works, as when they exit (to have Ursula help Hero pick out what to wear on her wedding day–tomorrow!), Beatrice emerges to proclaim (in the play’s first non-song rhyming verse, no less):

What fire is in mine ears? Can this be true?
Stand I condemn’d for pride and scorn so much?
Contempt, farewell! and maiden pride, adieu!
No glory lives behind the back of such.
And, Benedick, love on; I will requite thee,
Taming my wild heart to thy loving hand:
If thou dost love, my kindness shall incite thee
To bind our loves up in a holy band;
For others say thou dost deserve, and I
Believe it better than reportingly.
  • III.i.107-16

It’s interesting to note here the rhyme scheme: two quatrains, followed by a couplet. Had there been three quatrains, this would be a sonnet. Might it be that she cannot speak a sonnet because (unlike Juliet and her Romeo), Benedick is not there to help her complete the verse? Could be, coz, could be…

The next scene finds the men entering, with the “love gods” commenting on the changes they’ve seen in the now melancholic Benedick. Benedick claims he is not sad, but instead has a “toothache” (III.ii.20), which the Elizabethans associated with lovers.

Why? I haven’t a clue. Maybe because the sufferer might hold her hand against her cheek as Romeo says of Juliet: “See, how she leans her cheek upon her hand! // O, that I were a glove upon that hand, // That I might touch that cheek!” (Romeo and Juliet, II.ii.24-5). But I digress…

The prince, Leonato, and Claudio then proceed to tease Benedict for showing (now for the first time) all the symptoms of love: caring about fashion (III.ii.30-9), shaving (III.ii.42), wearing perfume or “civet” (III.ii.46). Agitated, Benedick leaves, but takes Leonato with him, ostensibly to discuss with the older man “wise words…which these hobbyhorses must not hear” (III.ii66-7). Conceivably, this could be to discuss Beatrice (and maybe even her hand in marriage), but more likely it’s a plot device, as now Leonato is out of the room for the entrance of Don John the Bastard.

The Bastard begins to (em)poison the liking Claudio has for his Hero–or as the Bastard puts it, “Leonato’s Hero, (Claudio’s) Hero, every man’s Hero” (III.ii.95-6). John promises to show his brother and Claudio evidence of her “wickedness” (III.ii.98), after which both Claudio and the prince declare they will “shame” (III.ii.113) Hero on the wedding day, if there is proof.

The third scene of the act is the first of the play to have a character other than a member of the two major families (Leonato’s and the prince). Here, we meet the clown of the play, the right master constable, Dogberry, as he gives his instructions to the members of the watch for that evening. Beyond comic, garbled misuse of words (“salvation” for “damnation,” “comprehend” for “apprehend” and the like), we also see Dogberry’s ridiculous foolishness: if the watch meets with a thief, they should do as little with him as possible, and certainly not lay hands on him as “they that touch pitch will be defiled” (III.iii.57).

The silly directions given, Dogberry exits, and Conrad and Borachio enter. They discuss the villainies just performed: the faked wooing of Margaret by Borachio in Hero’s bedchamber window for an audience of the prince and Claudio, who “went away… enraged” (III.iii.157). Hearing this confession, the members of the watch take the villains into custody.

The next scene shows Hero preparing for her wedding the next morning, discussing fashion and the actions coming for Hero this evening (well, hello, bawdy!). Beatrice enters, joins in the dirty talk, but cannot discuss the perfumed gloves Claudio has sent Hero, as Beatrice’s nose is “stuffed… (and) cannot smell” (III.iv.59). And yes, there is some bawdy riffing on “stuffing,” diverting into the sexual from the “catching of cold(s)” (III.iv.60-1). When Beatrice claims that she is sick, Margaret has a suggestion, distilled holy thistle, also known as “Carduus benedictus” (III.iv.68). Beatrice catches the allusion (Benedictus / Benedick), and questions it; Margaret only says that she now believes Beatrice now “look(s) with (her) eyes as other women do” (III.iv.85).

The fifth and final scene of the act finds Dogberry attempting to tell Leonato about the arrest of “a couple of … arrant knaves” (III.v.30), Conrad and Borachio. But in Leonato’s preoccupation with Hero’s impeding wedding, and Dogberry’s incoherence, the old man doesn’t listen to the constable, and instead heads off to the wedding.

That lack of listening couldn’t have any negative repercussions, could it?

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