It’s often said that Shakespeare began to write a tragicomedy about Hero and Claudio but fell in love with Beatrice and Benedick along the way and changed his mind. Kenneth Branagh’s charming but drastically cut 1993 film, in which he played Benedick alongside then-wife Emma Thompson’s Beatrice, reinforced this view; but we don’t think this is the case. Shakespeare doesn’t allow us to forget that there’s something very coercive in the wayBeatrice and Benedick are brought together, paralleling the masculine transactions through which Hero is given to Claudio. Beatrice’s choices are shaped by her vulnerability (she is an orphan in a patriarchal society, dependent on her uncle and guardian Leonato) and by what has happened to her cousin Hero; Benedick loses credibility with his male friends when he comes to treat Beatrice as his equal. No one character goes it alone in this play; no one chooses alone.
With the help of his protégé Claudio, Don Pedro has just closed a profitable business transaction, acquiring the harborside resort run by Leonato and his brother Antonio. Claudio wants to acquire Hero as well, and his boss Don Pedro gives her to him as a reward. Leonato’s desire to reestablish his resort leads to the realignment of his values with those of his new financial backer, Don Pedro, using his daughter as a bargaining chip. His attempt to straddle the roles of father and businessman comes undone, however, when Don John exploits his brother’s investment in his reputation, thereby destroying Leonato’s relationship with Don Pedro and with it, Hero. What voice do women have in these affairs among men? Is Hero’s silence the same as consent? How do women provide support for each other?
Benedick’s loyalties change across the play; Beatrice demands that he value her more than he values his reputation among other men. This is one of Shakespeare’s significant statements about male-female marriage in a (still) patriarchal society – that it must be founded on mutual knowledge, the accommodation of difference, and friendship. Shakespeare also calls our attention to class difference. It may be the top 2% whose interests drive the action of the play, but it is citizen Dogberry and his crew who, despite their best efforts if not their best intentions, bring the foul play of their more entitled superiors to light. The more things change. . . .