Messina is a wordy world. Its inhabitants like to chatter. Language matters, and right from the get-go. Not even the messenger, whose sole task is to deliver news of Don Pedro’s success in battle and imminent arrival, is exempt from the wit that flows so freely on Leonato’s estate. Words are not merely a means of communication, but a source of entertainment and delight. They are an art. It is no surprise then, that much of the play’s humour is the result of wordplay. From the exaggerated and elaborate epithets of Benedick to the witty ‘poinards’ of Beatrice (not to mention the ridiculous malapropisms of Dogberry and Verges) wordplay is never far away. We should not underestimate its importance.
Firstly, wordplay is one of Shakespeare’s chief methods of characterisation. Let us first consider the character of Beatrice. Her first line: ‘I pray you, is Signior Montanto returned from the wars, or no?’ uses wordplay to undermine Benedick, by playing on the sexual innuendo of ‘montanto’, a fencing term for an ‘upright blow or thrust’. She is then quick to turn the messenger’s words into something altogether different when she quips: ‘A good soldier to a lady, but what is he to a lord?’ again hinting at Benedick’s apparently infamous ways with women. The messenger’s words are a further source of punning in line 53: ‘It is so indeed, he is no less than a stuffed man’, where the original compliment (‘a man, stuffed with all honourable virtues’) is transformed into the stuff(ing) of an insult: ‘but for the stuffing – well, we are all mortal.’ Only seconds before the man himself arrives, Beatrice finds time for another pun, when she responds to the messenger’s diplomatic understatement that ‘the gentleman is not in [her] books’ with: ‘No; and he were, I would burn my study (I.i.73). Such a profound and insistent use of double-entendre establishes Beatrice’s quick-witted nature (in contrast with Don John, who is ‘not of many words’) and we may well admire her for it, as well as anticipate with delight the ‘skirmish of wits’ that will no doubt ensue when ‘Signior Montato’ does indeed arrive. The messenger, with his elaborate formality (‘badge of bitterness’) perhaps serves as a prologue for what is to come later in the scene, with Benedick. He is no match for Beatrice’s sharp wit, and we look forward to meeting the man who is.
When Benedick does arrive, Shakespeare does not disappoint:
Benedick: What, my dear Lady Disdain! Are you yet living?
Beatrice: Is it possible disdain should die, while she hath such meet food to feed it, as Signior Benedick? Courtesy itself must convert to disdain, if you come in her presence.
The insult does more than simply pun on his original pejorative; it adds a fresh insult to the mix. In this ‘skirmish of wit’ Beatrice has both seen and raised her opponent’s hand. However, unlike the messenger, Benedick is undefeated:
Benedick: Then is courtesy a turncoat.
The dramatic impact of this is significant, for we all love a ‘merry war’, but so is its comic effect. Whilst their sparring is based in wordplay, it remains merry indeed, for it is just that: play. Thus it is essential not only in its establishing characters, but, moreover, in establishing the relationship between those characters. Their ‘war’ can never end in tragedy whilst it is so firmly rooted in wordplay, for play is, by its very nature, a game, a bit of fun. We would be wrong to take it too seriously when they themselves are not.
If we are to believe in the relationship between Beatrice and Benedick, it is essential that we like them. For a modern audience, Benedick’s views on women may prove something of an obstacle in this regard, perhaps in the same way that Kate’s eventual submission at the end of The Taming of the Shrew seems a rather dissatisfying conclusion to the play. In this respect, Benedick’s use of language is certainly worth exploring, for it is difficult to take his views on women seriously when they are littered with hyperbole such as: ‘I will die in it at the stake.’ Don Pedro’s response: ‘Thou wast ever an obstinate heretic in the despite of beauty’ (I.i.217-8 – my emphasis) serves to mock such an oath – only a matter as serious as heresy could result in one’s pledging to be burned at the stake for their beliefs. Interestingly, Benedick continues in a religious vein when he responds: ‘That a woman conceived me, I thank her…’ Ketteredge has suggested that here, ‘Benedick speaks with mock solemnity, as if he were reciting his heretical confessional of faith.’ The point is clear: we would be wrong to take Benedick’s views on women (like his views on Beatrice) too seriously. He certainly isn’t, and later on admits that they were nothing other than ‘paper bullets of the brain’. They are insubstantial, weightless; they do not hit the mark. Nor are they from the heart, but the ‘brain’; such is clear from the language. We would do well to agree with Don Pedro when he declares that, before he dies, he will see Benedick ‘look pale with love’. He is certainly not taken in by Benedick’s exaggerated oaths to remain a bachelor. Neither should we be.
(By means of contrast, it is interesting to note the way the form shifts from prose to verse when Benedick leaves this scene. It is almost as if, now that the frivolous and lighthearted comedy of Bachelor Benedick is over, the mood grows, by contrast, far more solemn. Shakespeare indicates this by adopting the use of verse for the more serious discussion between Don Pedro and Claudio which follows.)
Finally, a note on structure. We cannot underestimate how important this is to the success of the comedy. If we are to fully appreciate the lighter scenes, it is important that they are thrown into relief by those of a darker, more serious nature. (The opposite is also true, of course.) This is where Dogberry and Verges play a role that is of the utmost importance.