The social hierarchy of Messina, is a very class conscious one and being witty is almost a full time occupation for many of its inhabitants. Playing practical jokes and tricks upon each other is a subtle way of maintaining the strict codes of conduct and among the most successful and benevolent of the deceptions practised are the parallel practical jokes played on Beatrice and Benedick in order to trick each of them into admitting their love for one another.
In their first encounter, we see Beatrice and Benedick using their superior intellects to ridicule each other. Benedick warns her to ‘keep her ladyship’ and she lashes back with insults around his physicality suggesting that he is so ugly that ‘scratching his face could not make it worse’. Benedick uses his wit to shield himself from her barbs, hiding his true feelings and pretending to enjoy his bachelor existence when actually it is a mechanism for his safety. Benedick presents one face to the world in order to be accepted by the society that judges him and it is this society that acknowledges his wit, but underpinning Benedick’s wit is his distaste for the superficial values that Messinian society is built upon. His ironic attitude towards both himself and the world he is held captive by is apparent in his soliloquy, where he weighs up the discrepancy between how the world sees him and how he sees himself.
The repartee between Beatrice and Benedick is sometimes blunt and crude, sometimes elaborate and self conscious. Puns, similes, metaphors, and paradoxes are all brought into play in their continual game of mutual insults and it is this aggressive verbal battle which pushes Beatrice and Benedick to the foreground of the play. Being in love is a game for fools and Benedick vows to never be ‘such a fool’. Benedick persuades himself that by staying away from Beatrice and denying himself any notions of marriage, he is a confirmed misogymist, that he is the stronger individual and has control over his life instead of living for another human being and risking becoming a hopelessly ‘in love’ lover. Benedick views women in society as somehow predatory, wanting to ‘capture’ a man and contain him in marriage, only to torture him with subsequent betrayal. However when faced with a woman such as Beatrice, who proclaims herself equally contemptuous of marriage and for the same reasons, Benedick’s role begins to fall apart, which is where Benedick faces the biggest battle in his life, as he fights to hold on to his notions of male honour. But no matter how hard he tries he cannot frame for himself a separate language of love and as a result he and Beatrice construct a loving relationship which is as much of a sparring match as their enmity, once Benedick gives up his notions of male honour.
In stark contrast to Benedick and Beatrice, Shakespeare’s ideal lovers, Claudio and Hero, ‘believe’ they are in love with each other, but we quickly see that when put to the test this love is superficial and lacks the true acknowledgement of each other’s individuality needed to sustain it. Their love for each other, although seemingly sincere, dissipates at the first obstacle and doubt sees one quick to accuse the other of adultery. For Beatrice and Benedick however, their jokes are the means whereby they can resist the kind of love-relationship exemplified by Hero and Claudio. In the end the ‘happy-ending’ which sees Hero married off to Claudio is one fraught with contradictions, for this conventional relationship, founded as it is on romantic love, which they exemplify, has been severely satirised by Shakespeare.
By presenting the relationship between Beatrice and Benedick as real and not idealistic, we see the fragility of an idealised, romantic love such as the one Claudio has with Hero and its tendency to collapse into loathing and disgust becomes all too apparent. Appropriately the play ends not with Claudio and Hero whose strict adherence to an unbending code of honour temporarily fragments their relationship, but with Beatrice and Benedick who overcome both the male code of honour and society’s expectations to love and accept each other for their individual selves. There is a relationship built on mutual trust, respect and acceptance and proof that Love must be truthful to be sustained.