There lived in the palace at Messina two ladies, whose names were Hero and Beatrice. Hero was the daughter, and Beatrice the niece, of Leonato, the governor of Messina.
Beatrice was of a lively temper and loved to divert her cousin Hero, who was of a more serious disposition, with her sprightly sallies. Whatever was going forward was sure to make matter of mirth for the light-hearted Beatrice.
At the time the history of these ladies commences some young men of high rank in the army, as they were passing through Messina on their return from a war that was just ended, in which they bad distinguished themselves by their great bravery, came to visit Leonato. Among these were Don Pedro, the Prince of Arragon, and his friend Claudio, who was a lord of Florence; and with them came the wild and witty Benedick, and he was a lord of Padua.
These strangers had been at Messina before, and the hospitable governor introduced them to his daughter and his niece as their old friends and acquaintance.
Benedick, the moment he entered the room, began a lively conversation with Leonato and the prince. Beatrice, who liked not to be left out of any discourse, interrupted Benedick with saying:
“I wonder that you will still be talking, Signor Benedick. Nobody marks you.”
Benedick was just such another rattlebrain as Beatrice, yet he was not pleased at this free salutation; he thought it did not become a well-bred lady to be so flippant with her tongue; and he remembered, when he was last at Messina, that Beatrice used to select him to make her merry jests upon. And as there is no one who so little likes to be made a jest of as those who are apt to take the same liberty themselves, so it was with Benedick and Beatrice; these two sharp wits never met in former times but a perfect war of raillery was kept up between them, and they always parted mutually displeased with each other. Therefore, when Beatrice stopped him in the middle of his discourse with telling him nobody marked what he was saying, Benedick, affecting not to have observed before that she was present, said:
“What, my dear Lady Disdain, are you yet living?” And now war broke out afresh between them, and a long jangling argument ensued, during which Beatrice, although she knew be had so well approved his valor in the late war, said that she would eat all he had killed there; and observing the prince take delight in Benedick's conversation, she called him “the prince's jester.” This sarcasm sank deeper into the mind of Benedick than all Beatrice had said before. The hint she gave him that he was a coward, by saying she would eat all he bad killed, he did not regard, knowing himself to be a brave man; but there is nothing that great wits so much dread as the imputation of buffoonery, because the charge comes sometimes a little too near the truth; therefore Benedick perfectly hated Beatrice when she called him “the prince's jester.”
The modest lady Hero was silent before the noble guests; and while Claudio was attentively observing the improvement which time had made in her beauty, and was contemplating the exquisite graces of her fine figure (for she was an admirable young lady), the prince was highly amused with listening to the humorous dialogue between Benedick and Beatrice; and he said in a whisper to Leonato:
“This is a pleasant-spirited young lady. She were an excellent wife for Benedick.”
Leonato replied to this suggestion, “O my lord, my lord, if they were but a week married, they would talk themselves mad!”
But though Leonato thought they would make a discordant pair, the prince did not give up the idea of matching these two keen wits together.
When the prince returned with Claudio from the palace he found that the marriage he had devised between Benedick and Beatrice was not the only one projected in that good company, for Claudio spoke in such terms of Hero as made the prince guess at what was passing in his heart; and he liked it well, and he said to Claudio:
“Do you affect Hero?”
To this question Claudio replied, “O my lord, when I was last at Messina I looked upon her with a soldier's eye, that liked, but had no leisure for loving; but now, in this happy time of peace, thoughts of war have left their places vacant in my mind, and in their room come thronging soft and delicate thoughts, all prompting me how fair young Hero is, reminding me that I liked her before I went to the wars.”
Claudio's confession of his love for Hero so wrought upon the prince that be lost no time in soliciting the consent of Leonato to accept of Claudio for a son-in-law. Leonato agreed to this proposal, and the prince found no great difficulty in persuading the gentle Hero herself to listen to the suit of the noble Claudio who was a lord of rare endowments and highly accomplished, and Claudio, assisted by his kind prince, soon prevailed upon Leonato to fix an early day for the celebration of his marriage with Hero.
Claudio was to wait but a few days before he was to be married to his fair lady; yet he complained of the interval being tedious, as indeed most young men are impatient when they are waiting for the accomplishment of any event they have set their hearts upon. The prince, therefore, to make the time seem short to him, proposed as a kind of merry pastime that they should invent some artful scheme to make Benedick and Beatrice fall in love with each other. Claudio entered with great satisfaction into this whim of the prince, and Leonato promised them his assistance, and even Hero said she would do any modest office to help her cousin to a good husband.
The device the prince invented was that the gentlemen should make Benedick believe that Beatrice was in love with him, and that Hero should make Beatrice believe that Benedick was in love with her.
The prince, Leonato, and Claudio began their operations first; and watching upon an opportunity when Benedick was quietly seated reading in an arbor, the prince and his assistants took their station among the trees behind the arbor, so near that Benedick could not choose but hear all they said; and after some careless talk the prince said:
“Come hither, Leonato. What was it you told me the other day—that your niece Beatrice was in love with Signor Benedick? I did never think that lady would have loved any man.”
“No, nor I neither, my lord,” answered Leonato. “It is most wonderful that she should so dote on Benedick, whom she in all outward behavior seemed ever to dislike.”
Claudio confirmed all this with saying that Hero bad told him Beatrice was so in love with Benedick that she would certainly die of grief if he could not be brought to love her; which Leonato and Claudio seemed to agree was impossible, he having always been such a railer against all fair ladies, and in particular against Beatrice.
The prince affected to harken to all this with great compassion for Beatrice, and he said, “It were good that Benedick were told of this.”
“To what end?” said Claudio. “He would but make sport of it, and torment the poor lady worse.”
“And if he should,” said the prince, “it were a good deed to hang him; for Beatrice is an excellent sweet lady, and exceeding wise in everything but in loving Benedick.”
Then the prince motioned to his companions that they should walk on and leave Benedick to meditate upon what he had overheard.
Benedick had been listening with great eagerness to this conversation; and he said to himself, when be heard Beatrice loved him: “Is it possible? Sits the wind in that corner?” And when they were gone, he began to reason in this manner with himself: “This can be no trick! They were very serious, and they have the truth from Hero, and seem to pity the lady. Love me! Why, it must be requited! I did never think to marry. But when I said I should die a bachelor, I did not think I should live to be married. They say the lady is virtuous and fair. She is so. And wise in everything but loving me. Why, that is no great argument of her folly! But here comes Beatrice. By this day, she is a fair lady. I do spy some marks of love in her.”
Beatrice now approached him and said, with her usual tartness, “Against my will I am sent to bid you come in to dinner.”
Benedick, who never felt himself disposed to speak so politely to her before, replied, “Fair Beatrice, I thank you for your pains.” And when Beatrice, after two or three more rude speeches, left him, Benedick thought he observed a concealed meaning of kindness under the uncivil words she uttered, and he said aloud: “If I do not take pity on her, I am a villain. If I do not love her, I am a Jew. I will go get her picture.”
The gentleman being thus caught in the net they had spread for him, it was now Hero's turn to play her part with Beatrice; and for this purpose she sent for Ursula and Margaret, two gentlewomen who attended upon her, and she said to Margaret:
“Good Margaret, run to the parlor; there you will find my cousin Beatrice talking with the prince and Claudio. Whisper in her ear that I and Ursula are walking in the orchard and that our discourse is all of her. Bid her steal into that pleasant arbor, where honeysuckles, ripened by the sun, like ungrateful minions, forbid the sun to enter.”
This arbor into which Hero desired Margaret to entice Beatrice was the very same pleasant arbor where Benedick had so lately been an attentive listener.
“I will make her come, I warrant, presently,” said Margaret.
Hero, then taking Ursula with her into the orchard, said to her: “Now, Ursula, when Beatrice comes, we will walk up and down this alley, and our talk must be only of Benedick, and when I name him, let it be your part to praise him more than ever man did merit. My talk to you must be how Benedick is in love with Beatrice. Now begin; for look where Beatrice like a lapwing runs close by the ground, to hear our conference.”
They then began, Hero saying', as if in answer to something which Ursula had said: “No, truly, Ursula. She is too disdainful; her spirits are as coy as wild birds of the rock.”
“But are you sure,” said Ursula, “that Benedick loves Beatrice so entirely?”
Hero replied, “So says the prince and my lord Claudio, and they entreated me to acquaint her with it; but I persuaded them, if they loved Benedick, never to let Beatrice know of it.”
“Certainly,” replied Ursula, “it were not good she knew his love, lest she made sport of it.”
“Why, to say truth,” said Hero, “never yet saw a man, how wise soever, or noble, young, or rarely featured, but she would dispraise him.”
“Sure, sure, such carping is not commendable,” said Ursula.
“No,” replied Hero, “but who dare tell her so? If I should speak, she would mock me into air.”
“Oh, you wrong your cousin!” said Ursula. “She cannot be so much without true judgment as to refuse so rare a gentleman as Signor Benedick.”
“He hath an excellent good name,” said Hero. “Indeed, he is the first man in Italy, always excepting my dear Claudio.”
And now, Hero giving her attendant a hint that it was time to change the discourse, Ursula said, “And when are you to be married, madam?”
Hero then told her that she was to be married to Claudio the next day, and desired she would go in with her and look at some new attire, as she wished to consult with her on what she would wear on the morrow.
Beatrice, who had been listening with breathless eagerness to this dialogue, when they went away exclaimed: “What fire is in mine ears? Can this be true? Farewell, contempt and scorn, and maiden pride, adieu! Benedick, love on! I will requite you, taming my wild heart to your loving hand.”
It must have been a pleasant sight to see these old enemies converted into new and loving friends, and to behold their first meeting after being cheated into mutual liking by the merry artifice of the good-humored prince. But a sad reverse in the fortunes of Hero must now be thought of. The morrow, which was to have been her wedding-day, brought sorrow on the heart of Hero and her good father, Leonato.
The prince had a half-brother, who came from the wars along with him to Messina. This brother (his name was Don John) was a melancholy, discontented man, whose spirits seemed to labor in the contriving of villainies. He hated the prince his brother, and he hated Claudio because he was the prince's friend, and determined to prevent Claudio's marriage with Hero, only for the malicious pleasure of making Claudio and the prince unhappy, for he knew the prince had set his heart upon this marriage almost as much as Claudio himself; and to effect this wicked purpose he employed one Borachio, a man as bad as himself, whom he encouraged with the offer of a great reward. This Borachio paid his court to Margaret, Hero's attendant; and Don John, knowing this, prevailed upon him to make Margaret promise to talk with him from her lady's chamber window that night, after Hero was asleep, and also to dress herself in Hero's clothes, the better to deceive Claudio into the belief that it was Hero; for that was the end he meant to compass by this wicked plot.
Don John then went to the prince and Claudio and told them that Hero was an imprudent lady, and that she talked with men from her chamber window at midnight. Now this was the evening before the wedding, and he offered to take them that night where they should themselves hear Hero discoursing with a man from her window; and they consented to go along with him, and Claudio said:
“If I see anything to-night why I should not marry her, to-morrow in the congregation, where I intended to wed her, there will I shame her.”
The prince also said, “And as I assisted you to obtain her, I will join with you to disgrace her.”
When Don John brought them near Hero's chamber that night, they saw Borachio standing under the window, and they saw Margaret looking out of Hero's window and heard her talking with Borachio; and Margaret being dressed in the same clothes they had seen Hero wear, the prince and Claudio believed it was the lady Hero herself.
Nothing could equal the anger of Claudio when he had made (as be thought) this discovery. All his love for the innocent Hero was at once converted into hatred, and he resolved to expose her in the church, as he had said he would, the next day; and the prince agreed to this, thinking no punishment could be too severe for the naughty lady who talked with a man from her window the very night before she was going to be married to the noble Claudio.
The next day, when they were all met to celebrate the marriage, and Claudio and Hero were standing before the priest, and the priest, or friar, as he was called, was proceeding to pronounce the marriage ceremony, Claudio, in the most passionate language, proclaimed the guilt of the blameless Hero, who, amazed at the strange words he uttered, said, meekly:
“Is my lord well, that he does speak so wide?”
Leonato, in the utmost horror, said to the prince, “My lord, why speak not you?”
“What should I speak?” said the prince. “I stand dishonored that have gone about to link my dear friend to an unworthy woman. Leonato, upon my honor, myself, my brother, and this grieved Claudio did see and bear her last night at midnight talk with a man at her chamber window.”
Benedick, in astonishment at what he heard, said, “This looks not like a nuptial.”
“True, O God!” replied the heart-struck Hero; and then this hapless lady sank down in a fainting fit, to all appearance dead.
The prince and Claudio left the church without staying to see if Hero would recover, or at all regarding the distress into which they had thrown Leonato. So hard-hearted had their anger made them.
Benedick remained and assisted Beatrice to recover Hero from her swoon, saying, “How does the lady?”
“Dead, I think,” replied Beatrice, in great agony, for she loved her cousin; and, knowing her virtuous principles, she believed nothing of what she had heard spoken against her.
Not so the poor old father. He believed the story of his child's shame, and it was piteous to hear him lamenting over her, as she lay like one dead before him, wishing she might never more open her eyes.
But the ancient friar was a wise man and full of observation on human nature, and he had attentively marked the lady's countenance when she heard herself accused and noted a thousand blushing shames to start into her face, and then he saw an angel-like whiteness bear away those blushes, and in her eye be saw a fire that did belie the error that the prince did speak against her maiden truth, and he said to the sorrowing father:
“Call me a fool; trust not my reading nor my observation; trust not my age, my reverence, nor my calling, if this sweet lady lie not guiltless here under some biting error.”
When Hero had recovered from the swoon into which she had fallen, the friar said to her, “Lady, what man is he you are accused of?”
Hero replied, “They know that do accuse me; I know of none.” Then turning to Leonato, she said, “O my father, if you can prove that any man has ever conversed with me at hours unmeet, or that I yesternight changed words with any creature, refuse me, hate me, torture me to death.”
“There is,” said the friar, “some strange misunderstanding in the prince and Claudio.” And then he counseled Leonato that he should report that Hero was dead; and he said that the deathlike swoon in which they had left Hero would make this easy of belief; and he also advised him that he should put on mourning, and erect a monument for her, and do all rites that appertain to a burial.
“What shall become of this?” said Leonato. “What will this do?”
The friar replied: “This report of her death shall change slander into pity; that is some good. But that is not all the good 1 hope for. When Claudio shall hear she died upon hearing his words, the idea of her life shall sweetly creep into his imagination. Then shall he mourn, if ever love had interest in his heart, and wish that be had not so accused her; yea, though he thought his accusation true.”
Benedick now said, “Leonato, let the friar advise you; and though you know how well I love the prince and Claudio, yet on my honor I will not reveal this secret to them.”
Leonato, thus persuaded, yielded; and he said, sorrowfully, “I am so grieved that the smallest twine may lead me.”
The kind friar then led Leonato and Hero away to comfort and console them, and Beatrice and Benedick remained alone; and this was the meeting from which their friends, who contrived the merry plot against them, expected so much diversion; those friends who were now overwhelmed with affliction and from whose minds all thoughts of merriment seemed forever banished.
Benedick was the first who spoke, and he said, “Lady Beatrice, have you wept all this while?”
“Yea, and I will weep awhile longer,” said Beatrice.
“Surely,” said. Benedick, “I do believe your fair cousin is wronged.”
“Ah,” said Beatrice, “how much might that man deserve of me who would right her!”
Benedick then said: “Is there any way to show such friendship? I do love nothing in the world so well as you. Is not that strange?”
“It were as possible,” said Beatrice, “for me to say I loved nothing in the world so well as you; but believe me not, and yet I lie not. I confess nothing, nor I deny nothing. I am sorry for my cousin.”
“By my sword,” said Benedick, “you love me, and I protest I love you. Come, bid me do anything for you.”
“Kill Claudio,” said Beatrice.
“Ha! not for the world,” said Benedick; for he loved his friend Claudio and he believed he had been imposed upon.
“Is not Claudio a villain that has slandered, scorned, and dishonored my cousin?” said Beatrice. “Oh, that I were a man!”
“Hear me, Beatrice!” said Benedick.
But Beatrice would hear nothing in Claudio's defense, and she continued to urge on Benedick to revenge her cousin's wrongs; and she said: “Talk with a man out of the window? a proper saying! Sweet Hero! she is wronged; she is slandered; she is undone. Oh, that I were a man for Claudio's sake! or that I had any friend who would be a man for my sake! But valor is melted into courtesies and compliments. I cannot be a man with wishing, therefore I will die a woman with grieving.”
“Tarry, good Beatrice,” said Benedick. “By this hand I love you.”
“Use it for my love some other way than swearing by it,” said Beatrice.
“Think you on your soul that Claudio has wronged Hero?” asked Benedick.
“Yea,” answered Beatrice; “as sure as I have a thought or a soul.”
“Enough,” said Benedick. “I am engaged; I will challenge him. I will kiss your hand, and so leave you. By this hand Claudio shall render me a dear account! As you hear from me, so think of me. Go, comfort your cousin.”
While Beatrice was thus powerfully pleading with Benedick, and working his gallant temper, by the spirit of her angry words, to engage in the cause of Hero and fight even with his dear friend Claudio, Leonato was challenging the prince and Claudio to answer with their swords the injury they had done his child, who, be affirmed, had died for grief. But they respected his age and his sorrow, and they said:
“Nay, do not quarrel with us, good old man.”
And now came Benedick, and be also challenged Claudio to answer with his sword the injury be had done to Hero; and Claudio and the prince said to each other:
“Beatrice has set him on to do this.”
Claudio, nevertheless, must have accepted this challenge of Benedick had not the justice of Heaven at the moment brought to pass a better proof of the innocence of Hero than the uncertain fortune of a duel.
While the prince and Claudio were yet talking of the challenge of Benedick a magistrate brought Borachio as a prisoner before the prince. Borachio had been overheard talking with one of his companions of the mischief he had been employed by Don John to do.
Borachio made a full confession to the prince in Claudio's bearing that it was Margaret dressed in her lady's clothes that he had talked with from the window, whom they had mistaken for the lady Hero herself. and no doubt continued on the minds of Claudio and the prince of the innocence of Hero. If a suspicion had remained it must have been removed by the flight of Don John, who, finding his villainies were detected, fled from Messina to avoid the just anger of his brother.
The heart of Claudio was sorely grieved when he found he bad falsely accused Hero, who, he thought, died upon bearing his cruel words; and the memory of his beloved Hero's image came over him in the rare semblance that he loved it first; and the prince, asking him if what he heard did not run like iron through his soul, he answered that he felt as if he had taken poison while Borachio was speaking.
And the repentant Claudio implored forgiveness of the old man Leonato for the injury he had done his child; and promised that, whatever penance Leonato would lay upon him for his fault in believing the false accusation against his betrothed wife, for her dear sake he would endure it.
The penance Leonato enjoined him was to marry the next morning a cousin of Hero's, who, he said, was now his heir, and in person very like Hero. Claudio, regarding the solemn promise he made to Leonato, said he would marry this unknown lady, even though she were an Ethiop. But his heart was very sorrowful, and he passed that night in tears and in remorseful grief at the tomb which Leonato had erected for Hero.
When the morning came the prince accompanied Claudio to the church, where the good friar and Leonato and his niece were already assembled, to celebrate a second nuptial; and Leonato presented to Claudio his promised bride. And she wore a mask, that Claudio might not discover her face. And Claudio said to the lady in the mask:
“Give me your hand, before this holy friar. I am your husband, if you will marry me.”
“And when I lived I was your other wife,” said this unknown lady; and, taking off her mask, she proved to be no niece (as was pretended), but Leonato's very daughter, the lady Hero herself. We may be sure that this proved a most agreeable surprise to Claudio, who thought her dead, so that be could scarcely for joy believe his eyes; and the prince, who was equally amazed at what he saw, exclaimed:
“Is not this Hero, Hero that was dead?”'
Leonato replied, “She died, my lord, but while her slander lived.”
The friar promised them an explanation of this seeming miracle, after the ceremony was ended, and was proceeding to marry them when he was interrupted by Benedick, who desired to be married at the same time to Beatrice. Beatrice making some demur to this match, and Benedick challenging her with her love for him, which he had learned from Hero, a pleasant explanation took place; and they found they had both been tricked into a belief of love, which had never existed, and had become lovers in truth by the power of a false jest. But the affection which a merry invention had cheated them into was grown too powerful to be shaken by a serious explanation; and since Benedick proposed to marry, he was resolved to think nothing to the purpose that the world could say against it; and he merrily kept up the jest and swore to Beatrice that he took her but for pity, and because he heard she was dying of love for him; and Beatrice protested that she yielded but upon great persuasion, and partly to save his life, for she heard he was in a consumption. So these two mad wits were reconciled and made a match of it, after Claudio and Hero were married; and to complete the history, Don John, the contriver of the villainy, was taken in his flight and brought back to Messina; and a grave punishment it was to this gloomy, discontented man to see the joy and feastings which, by the disappointment of his plots, took place in the palace in Messina.