Act Two, Scene One
Leonato has noticed that Don John did not attend the dinner, but Hero tells them he is melancholic. Beatrice says that a combination between Don John and Benedick would create the perfect man, one who spoke just enough. Leonato tells Beatrice she will never get a husband if she continues to make such "shrewd" remarks. Beatrice acknowledges that she is happy without a husband and plans to die a spinster.
Antonio turns to Hero and tells her he hopes she will obey her father, but Beatrice interrupts him and mocks his expectation that Hero will curtsy to her father's every demand. Ignoring her, Leonato orders Hero to accept the Prince's offer if he comes to her. Beatrice gives Hero some advice about how to accept, telling her how to make the Prince wait for an answer and comparing wooing, wedding and repenting to various dances. Leonato tells Beatrice, "Cousin, you apprehend passing shrewdly" (2.1.67).
Don Pedro and the other revelers arrive wearing masks. He immediately goes over to Hero and asks her to dance a with him. She agrees, but tells him she hopes the face underneath the mask is far better looking than the mask itself. Meanwhile, Balthasar, the servant to Don Pedro, has approached Margaret, a serving-gentlewoman to Hero, and they flirt briefly. Antonio and Ursula form another couple on the dance floor, and Ursula tells him she recognizes him as Signor Antonio. Antonio tries to deny it, but she refuses to believe him.
Benedick meets up with Beatrice and refuses to reveal who he is. She starts to talk about Benedick, calling him, "the Prince's jester, a very dull fool" (2.1.118). Benedick assures her he will inform Benedick what she has said about him.
Don John and Borachio figure out who Claudio is by his bearing. Don John approaches him and asks him if he is Benedick, and Claudio plays along, claiming he is. Don John tells Claudio that he should separate Don Pedro and Hero because she is not equal to his brother's birth. Borachio chimes in as well, telling Claudio that he heard Don Pedro swear his affection for Hero and plan to marry her that very night.
Once Claudio is alone he comments that it must be true since friendship is constant in all things except for love. He remarks, "Farewell, therefore, Hero" (2.1.160). Benedick arrives and invites Claudio to go with him, telling him the Prince "that got your Hero" (2.1.169). Claudio, depressed by the thought that Don Pedro has stolen Hero from him, leaves. Don Pedro himself arrives and Benedick accuses him of betraying his friendship to Claudio by stealing Hero. Don Pedro denies the charge and says that he was merely doing what he could for the couple.
Benedick has been stung by what Beatrice said about him while they danced, and the he tries to tell Don Pedro what she said that hurt him. He is mostly upset because she called him the "Prince's jester", yet he ironically confirms this accusation by comically reenacting the scene for Don Pedro. Beatrice arrives with Hero, Claudio and Leonato. Benedick leaves as soon as he sees her, unable to bear her comments any longer.
Don Pedro chastises Beatrice for having been so harsh to Benedick, but she replies that Benedick once won her heart and toyed with her. He then turns to Claudio, who is still jealous of him, and informs Claudio that he wooed Hero successfully and spoke with Leonato who consented to the marriage. Neither Claudio nor Hero are able to speak to one another, and finally Claudio says, "Silence is the perfectest herald of joy" (2.1.267).
Beatrice remarks that everyone is getting married and leaving home except she herself. Don Pedro gallantly offers to marry her but she refuses, telling him he is "too costly to wear every day" (2.1.287). She leaves after Leonato reminds her of some work she needs to take care of. Claudio and Leonato agree to hold the wedding in one week, and in the meantime Don Pedro tells them they will contrive to get Benedick and Beatrice to fall in love. Claudio and Hero agree to participate in the plot.
Act Two, Scene Two
Don John is furious over the fact that Claudio is marrying Hero. Borachio, his friend, offers to thwart the marriage. He tells Don John that he is a good friend of Hero's servant-gentlewoman Margaret and that he can get her to look out at Hero's chamber window. Borachio proposes that Don John get Don Pedro and Claudio to watch the chamber window at an appointed time, and he will then meet Margaret in the room, thereby making them think that Hero has another lover. Don John promises Borachio a thousand ducats if the plan succeeds.
Act Two, Scene Three
Benedick is walking in Leonato's garden contemplating the change in Claudio since he fell in love with Hero. He decides that he will never fall in love the way Claudio did. He sees Claudio and Don Pedro coming and hides so he can listen to them.
Don Pedro arrives with Claudio and Leonato. Don Pedro asks them if they saw where Benedick hid, and Claudio tells him they will give Benedick more than he bargained for. Balthasar is brought onstage to perform a song for them that he duly sings.
After the song is over, Don Pedro asks Leonato if it is true that Beatrice is in love with Benedick. Leonato plays along with the lie, saying that he would never have suspected it given the way she treats Benedick in public. Don Pedro continues asking questions about Beatrice's love for Benedick while Benedick listens in the background, slowly becoming convinced that what Leonato is saying must be true. Claudio joins in, telling Don Pedro what he purportedly heard from Hero, and claiming that Hero thinks Beatrice will surely die before she reveals her love.
The men leave, with Don Pedro hinting in an aside that the same net must be spread for Beatrice by Hero and Ursula. Benedick comes out of hiding and remarks that he cannot sit idly by and be censured for not returning Beatrice's love. He determines to be kind to Beatrice and consider marrying her. She comes out and bids him come to dinner, unaware that Benedick thinks she loves him. Beatrice is as unflattering as ever, making Benedick's attempts to be polite even more comical.
Beatrice is one of the most pleasant characters because of her wit and sharp tongue. However, the audience soon realizes that she is so witty because she is on track to be a true spinster. Leonato tells her "By my troth, niece, thou wilt never get thee a husband if thou be so shrewd of thy tongue" (2.1.16-17). There is therefore a great deal of ambiguity over whether she will marry or not. Beatrice woefully comments on Hero's engagement, "Thus goes everyone in the world but I, and I am sunburnt" (2.1.278-279). In spite of her railings against marriage, Beatrice realizes that marriage is a way out of the house and that it represents the only way to escape from Leonato's protection.
However, Beatrice is also more than aware that marriage brings many risks with it. "Would it not grieve a woman to be overmastered with a piece of valiant dust?" (2.1.51-52). Marriage for a woman is to risk her integrity by submitting to a man. A similar fate is seen by Benedick, who views marriage as risk to mens' honor. As a result, he commonly refers to bulls' horns and cuckoldry in the first act. Both Benedick and Beatrice hold a mature awareness of what marriage entails, causing them to shun it. This will show up later in the last act when Benedick remarks, "Thou and I are too wise to woo peaceably" (5.2.62).
In fact, it is Beatrice and Benedick alone who pay the most attention to social customs. Ironically they do this while arguing with each other, thereby breaking with social norms. They put on a facade of disregard for social norms, but actually note what is happening around them far more than other people. This is evident when Leonato tells Beatrice, "Cousin, you apprehend passing shrewdly" (2.1.67).
The masked ball is one of the more interesting scenes because of the fact that nearly everyone is unmasked before it starts. Leonato and Hero know that Don Pedro will approach her, Beatrice and Benedick, although seemingly unaware of who the other is, could arguably be quite aware of with whom they are speaking, and the other characters all recognize each other as well. Of all the characters present, only the two unmasked people at the ball, namely Borachio and Don John, are actually wearing masks. They pretend not to know Claudio and cause him to think Don Pedro is wooing Hero for himself.
Benedick appears to be quite distraught over what Beatrice calls him at the ball, a Prince's jester. In speaking with Don Pedro he gives a wonderful performance in which his mind is wonderfully captured, a piling up of anger and fury but also commingled with his attempts to render the situation comical in order to entertain Don Pedro. This attempt at comedy in spite of his anger ironically confirms Beatrice's charge that he is the Prince's jester:
She told me, not thinking I had been
myself, that I was the prince's jester, that I was
duller than a great thaw; huddling jest upon jest
with such impossible conveyance upon me that I stood
like a man at a mark, with a whole army shooting at
me. She speaks poniards, and every word stabs:
if her breath were as terrible as her terminations,
there were no living near her; she would infect to
the north star. I would not marry her, though she
were endowed with all that Adam bad left him before
he transgressed: she would have made Hercules have
turned spit, yea, and have cleft his club to make
the fire too.
The quarreling between Benedick and Beatrice has often been marveled at, both within the play itself and by the audience. Many readers of the play try to imagine that they are in fact deeply in love in spite of their quarrels, and Beatrice does indicate that she previously loved Benedick: "Marry, once before he [Benedick] won it [my heart] of me, with false dice" (2.1.243-244). However, their own words later on belie any sort of deeper love between them, especially in the last scene where they realize they have been tricked into declaring their love for one another. Yet the conspiracy to make them marry is a form of social pressure that they cannot overcome. Benedick, having overheard Leonato say Beatrice loves him, is afraid of being censured: "I hear how I am censured" (2.3.199-200). He later admits that, "The world must be peopled" (2.3.214). Their constant fight against the pressures of society fail in the end, and we are left thinking that marriage is itself a conspiracy.
The specter of silence crops up again in this act, this time between Claudio and Hero. The silence between them will become more dangerous later when Claudio thinks Hero has committed infidelity. In this act he surprisingly cannot speak even once he realizes that she will marry him. He says, "Silence is the perfectest herald of joy" (2.1.267). The irony of course is that silence is no herald at all, but rather implies complete lack of emotion from either Hero or Claudio towards the other person.
Language is a significant part of the play and the plot. Much Ado About Nothing has more prose than almost any other Shakespearian play, and it is significant to see how Shakespeare uses this prose. Benedick remarks on the change in Claudio by noting his change in language: "He was wont to speak plain and to the purpose, like an honest man and a soldier, and now is he turned orthography" (2.3.17-18). This shows the transition from uncluttered military language to stylistic prose, and it is indicative of some of the confusion in the play, specifically, people do not speak plainly.
A common theme throughout Shakespearian drama is the role of gardens. Gardens are dangerous places to be because they harbor serpents trying to seduce the senses. Much Ado About Nothing has many garden scenes, all of which are involved in plotting against or confusing other characters. For instance, Don Pedro spread his rumors about Beatrice loving Benedick in the garden where Benedick is hiding. In the first scene Claudio and Don Pedro are overheard in the garden, causing Leonato to think Don Pedro wants to wed Hero. Beatrice will likewise overhear Hero and Ursula in the garden, causing her to think Benedick loves her.
Shakespeare was acutely aware of the similarity between the words note, noting, and nothing:
Don Pedro:Do it in notes.
Balthasar: Note this before my notes:
There's not a note of mine that's worth the noting.
Don Pedro: Why, these are very crotchets [whimsies] that he speaks -
Note notes, forsooth, and nothing!" (2.3.48-52)
The song that Balthasar sings is a song about infidelity. However, the men listening all fail to note this song. Indeed, the song actually foreshadows what will be mis-noted in the near future when Hero is accused of infidelity.
The use of the word fashion is deftly invoked by Shakespeare both as a noun and a verb. It represents the social system that all the characters are involved in, and is used to draw a parallel between the evil plots of Don John and the more mild ones of Don Pedro. "I would fain have it a match, and I doubt not but to fashion it" (2.1.319-320). This comment by Don Pedro is immediately followed by Don John who allows Borachio to fashion his plot as well: "I will so fashion the matter that Hero shall be absent" (2.2.38). The parallel between the two brothers makes their plots actually seem identical in a sense; they both corrupt the social system to achieve their own ends. The fact that society will condemn Don John but not Don Pedro is merely because we as a society think that marriage is not a crime whereas infidelity is. In many ways, the audience becomes guilty of Don Pedro's corruption of the truth while hypocritically condemning Don John's.