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Here we find this anti-matrimonial lady thinking much rather of getting a husband for herself, than of preventing her cousin from accepting one. But it is not only her habitual raillery against marriage in general, that amounts to mere pleasantry and nothing more: her antipathy to the individual cavalier upon whom she exercises her riotous wit, is not any more in earnest. Upon this point the critics would have done well to attend to her uncle's intimation in the opening scene, addressed to Don Pedro's messenger who is listening to the first display of Beatrice's humour at the expense of the absent Benedick:
You must not, sir, mistake my niece : there is a kind of merry war betwixt Signior Benedick and her: they never meet but there is a skirmish of wit between them.
That in this merry warfare the gentleman had been the original aggressor, is pretty evident from his own avowal to his friend Claudio, when the latter first asks his opinion respecting Hero:-.
Do you question me, as an honest man should do, for my simple true judgment; or would you have me speak, after my custom, as being a professed tyrant to their sex?
And though, at Claudio's earnest request, he tries hard to “speak in sober judgment,” yet we find him relapsing immediately into his inveterate habit of talking as “a professed tyrant” to the fair sex:
But I hope you have no intent to turn husband, have Claud. I would scarce trust myself, though I had sworn the contrary, if Hero would be my wife.
Ben. Is it come to this i'faith ? Hath not the world one man, but he will wear his cap with suspicion? Shall I never see a bachelor of three-score again? Go to, i'faith; an thou wilt needs thrust thy neck into a yoke,-wear the print of it, and sigh away Sundays.
And again, flouting in like manner the Count's protestation of his passion to Don Pedro, he is reminded by the latter—“ Thou wast ever an obstinate heretic in the despite of beauty.” And in the fol
lowing dialogue he seems quite eager to justify the imputation
Ben. That a woman conceived me, I thank her; that she brought me up, I likewise give her most humbl thanks : but that I will have a recheat winded in my forehead, or hang my bugle in an invisible baldric, all women shall pardon me. Because I will not do them the wrong to mistrust any, I will do myself the right to trust none; and the fine is (for the which I may go the finer), I will live a bachelor.
Don Ped. I shall see thee, ere I die, look pale with love.
Ben. With anger, with sickness, or with hunger, my lord; not with love. Prove that ever I lose more blood with love, than I will get again with drinking; pick out mine eyes with a balladmaker's pen, and hang me up at the door of a brothel-house for the sign of blind Cupid.
Don Ped. Well, if ever thou dost fall from this faith, thou wilt
prove a notable argument.
Ben. If I do, hang me in a bottle like a cat, and shoot at me; and be that hits me, let him be clapped on the shoulder and called Adam.
Don Ped. Well, as time shall try ;-In time the savage bull doth bear the yoke.
Ben. The savage bull may; but if ever the sensible Benedick bear it, pluck off the bull's horns and set them in my forehead; and let me be vilely painted; and in such great letters as they write, Here is yood horse to hire, let them signify under my sign, Here you may see Benedick the married man.
Claud. If this should ever happen, thou wouldst be hornmad.
Don Ped. Nay, if Cupid have not spent all his quiver in Venice, thou wilt quake for this shortly.
Ben. I look for an earthquake too, then.
It is plain that a man who not only professed such vehement hostility to marriage, but habitually grounded it upon the gravest of all imputations that can be brought against womankind in general, must bring upon him the assaults of such a spirit as Beatrice, so ardent and so intelligent. She must attack him in sheer defence of her own sex; and we see that he is the only individual of the piece whom she does attack. But it is a cause of quite an opposite nature that gives double keenness to the shafts of her sarcasm.
Benedick's talkatively pertinacious heresy “in despite of beauty,” irritates and tantalizes her the more by continually obtruding itself
upon her from the lips of a man who otherwise attracts her personal preference, as one who,
For shape, for bearing, argument, and valour,
Goes foremost in report through Italy. It is the prior interest which he has in her heart on this account, that really makes her take so much trouble to "put down” his “professed tyranny” to her sex. It is this interest that makes her, in the opening scene of the play, so eagerly enquire of Don Pedro's messenger concerning Benedick's present reputation and fortune. How plainly may we see her, under the ironical guise which her questionings assume, delighting to draw from her informant one commendation after another of the gentleman's valour and other eminent qualifications :
Beat. I pray you, is Signior Montanto returned from the wars, or not?
Messenger. I know none of that name, lady; there was none such in the army, of any sort.
Leon. What is he that you ask for, niece?
Beat. He set up his bills here in Messina, and challenged Cupid at the flight; and my uncle's fool, reading the challenge, subscribed for Cupid, and challenged him at the bird-bolt. I pray you, how many hath he killed and eaten in these wars? But how many hath he killed ?—for, indeed, I promised to eat all of his killing.
Leon. Faith, niece, you tax Signior Benedick too much; but he'll be meet with you, I doubt it not.
Mess. He hath done good service, lady, in these wars.
Beat. You had musty victual, and he hath holp to eat it: he is a very valiant trencher-man; he hath an excellent stomach.
Mess. And a good soldier, too, lady.
Mess. A lord to a lord, a man to a man ; stuffed with all honourable virtues.
Beat. It is so, indeed; he is no less than a stuffed man ; but for the stuffing ;-well, we are all mortal.
Leon. You must not, sir, mistake my niece : there is a kind of merry war betwixt Signior Benedick and her; they never meet but there is a skirmish of wit between them.
Beat. Alas, he gets nothing by that. In our last conflict, four of his five wits went halting off; and now is the whole man
governed with one : so that if he have wit enough to keep himself warm, let him bear it for a difference between himself and his
for it is all the wealth that he hath left, to be known a reasonable creature. Who is his companion now ?-He hath every month a new sworn brother.
Mess. Is it possible?
Beat. Very easily possible : he wears his faith but as the fashion of his hat; it ever changes with the next block.
Mess. I see, lady, the gentleman is not in your books.
I you, who is his companion? Is there no young squarer now, that will make a voyage with him to the devil ?
Mess. He is most in the company of the right noble Claudio.
Beat. O lord ! he will hang upon him like a disease: he is sooner caught than the pestilence, and the taker runs presently mad. God help the noble Claudio; if he have caught the Benedick, it will cost him a thousand pound ere he be cured.
Mess. I will hold friends with you, lady.
In all this, we say, the lady's part of the dialogue seems inspired quite as much by the desire to hear good news of Benedick as by the love of turning him into ridicule: it is of his "good parts” that she is chiefly thinking. But he no sooner makes his appearance, than he re-awakens all her resentment by indulging, in the first words that he utters, his habit of satirical reflection
her Don Pedro, at his first interview with Leonato and his family, says, turning to Hero, “ I think this is your daughter.” The father's answer,
“ Her mother hath many times told me so," brings from Benedick the question, "Were you in doubt, sir, that you asked her ?" And accord
” ingly, in the altercation that follows between him and the lady Hero's lively cousin, we find the whole ardour and ingenuity of the latter exerting themselves to humble and silence, if possible, the satirical loquacity of this vivacious cavalier :
Don Ped. Truly, the lady fathers herself. Be happy, lady! for you are like an honourable father.
Ben. If Signior Leonato be her father, she would not have his head on her shoulders for all Messina, as like him as she is.
Beat. I wonder that you will still be talking, Signior Benedick; nobody marks you.
Ben. What, my dear lady Disdain ! are you yet living?
Beat. Is it possible Disdain should die, while she hath such meet food to feed on as Signior Benedick? Courtesy herself must convert to Disdain, if you come in her presence.
Ben. Then is Courtesy a turn-coat. But it is certain, I am loved of all ladies, only you excepted : and I would I could find in my heart, that I had not a hard heart; for, truly, I love none.
Beat. A dear happiness to women; they would else have been troubled with a pernicious suitor. I thank God, and my cold blood, I am of your humour for that; I had rather hear my dog bark at a crow, than a man swear he loves me.
Ben. God keep your ladyship still in that mind! so some gentleman or other shall 'scape a predestinate scratched face.
Beat. Scratching could not make it worse an 'twere such a face as yours were.
Ben. Well, you are a rare parrot-teacher.
Ben. I would my horse had the speed of your tongue, and so good a continuer. But keep your way, o'God's name.
I have done. Beat. You always end with a jade's trick ; I know
of old. Here, it must be admitted, the lady's object is evidently to talk the gentlernan down, by dint not only of perseverance, but of poignant wit and merciless retort. She has no opportunity for argument, were she ever so much inclined to use it; for it is by anything but argument that Benedick himself carries on his verbal warfare against her sex; in this matter, as Claudio
says, never could maintain his part, but in the force of his will.” And this pertinacity of
” assertion in him is rendered more annoying by his rather obtrusive loquacity: for this over-talkativeness, let us observe, is not merely attributed to him by Beatrice under the excitement of their “ skirmishes of wit;" we find it, in the opening of the second act, coolly descanted on by herself and her uncle, and deliberately placed in contrast with the taciturnity of Don Pedro's brother:
Leon. Was not Count John here at supper ?
Beat. How tartly that gentleman looks! I never can see him but I am heart-burned an hour after.