The church stood opposite Leonato’s villa. The church yard overlooked a vast expanse of blue sea. It was a place Hero sometimes came to sit and reflect in silence. She had often imagined the wedding that she would have there one day and now that day had come. The houseguests had assembled and several notables from Messina had joined them. As she entered the church with her father she spied her handsome groom standing with the prince at the altar, both splendid in their uniforms. His officer friends sat at the front, also in uniform. Her cousin turned and smiled as she walked up the aisle. Her old friend, Friar Francis, beamed his welcome.
‘Come, Friar Francis,’ said Leonato. ‘Be brief: just the plain marriage service. You can outline the particular duties of marriage afterwards.’
Hero took her place beside Claudio.
‘Have you come here to marry this lady, my lord?’ said the friar.
‘No!’ said Claudio sharply.
There was some laughter.
‘To be married to her,’ said Leonato. ‘You’ve come here to marry her.’
Friar Francis smiled. He knew something about the sense of humour of these young officers – never knowing where to stop. He looked at Hero. ‘Lady, you’ve come here to be married to this count.’
‘I have,’ said Hero.
‘If either of you know of any secret impediment why you should not be joined together, I charge you, on your souls, to say so.’
Claudio, unsmiling, glared at her. ‘Do you know of any, Hero?’
‘None, my lord.’
‘Do you know of any, count?’ said the friar.
‘I dare to give his answer,’ said Leonato. ‘None.’
Claudio turned on him. ‘Oh, what men dare do! What men may do! What men daily do, knowing not what they do!’
‘What’s this,’ called Benedick. ‘Is this a grammar lesson? It’s just like the one on laughing in the grammar book.’
Claudio’s face hadn’t changed throughout. ‘Stand aside, friar,’ he said. ‘Old man, do you give me this virgin, your daughter, freely and without conditions?’
‘As freely, son, as God gave her to me.’
‘And what do you want from me in return for this rich and precious gift?’
‘Nothing, unless you give her back to me.’
The laughter in the church was tinged with nervousness now.
Claudio made a slight bow to his friend. ‘Dear prince,’ he said. ‘you’ve taught me how to show true gratitude.’ He took Hero’s arm roughly and projected her towards her father. ‘There, Leonato,’ he said. ‘Take her back again. Don’t give this rotten orange to your friend: she’s only showing the outward signs and appearance of honour. Look how she’s blushing like a virgin! Oh, the way cunning sin can cover itself with such a display of conviction and truth! Is that blushing modesty evidence of simple virtue?’ He turned and faced the congregation. ‘Wouldn’t all of you, looking at her now, swear that she is a virgin, judging by these blushes? But she isn’t. She knows the heat of a lecherous bed. Her blushes are guilt, not modesty.’
The guests were silent now, watching tensely.
‘What are you talking about?’ said Leonato.
‘Not being married: not to join my soul with a proven whore,’ said Claudio.
‘My dear lord,’ said Leonato, forcing a smile, ‘if you are using this because you have taken advantage of her youth to steal her virginity…’
‘I understand what you’re saying,’ snapped Claudio, ‘that if I’ve had her, you will say that she did it because she had embraced me as a husband, so excusing the sin. No, Leonato, I never tempted her with inappropriate requests, but showed bashful sincerity and becoming love, as a brother would for his sister.’
‘And did I ever seem anything else to you?’ said Hero.
‘How dare you!’ shouted Claudio. ‘Seeming!’ I’ll tell you. You ‘seem’ to me as chaste as Diana, the goddess of chastity herself: as chaste as the bud before it opens, but you are more extreme in your blood than Venus, or those domestic pets that under their pampered surface are raging with bestial sensuality.’
‘Is my lord feeling unwell that he’s speaking so extravagantly?’
Leonato appealed to Don Pedro. ‘Sweet prince, why don’t you say something?’
‘What can I say?’ said Don Pedro. ‘I’ve been dishonoured by putting myself out to link my dear friend to a common whore.’
Leonato looked from Don Pedro to Claudio and back again. ‘Are you really saying these things or am I only dreaming?’ he said.
Don John got up and approached Leonato. ‘Sir, they have said them and these things are true,’ he said.
Benedick also got up. ‘This doesn’t look like a wedding,’ he said.
Hero, who had been growing paler crept into her father’s embrace, where she burst into tears. ‘True!’ she cried. ‘O God!’
‘Leonato,’ said Claudio. ‘Am I standing here? Is this the prince? Is this the prince’s brother? Is this face Hero’s? Are our eyes our own?’
‘All this is so,’ said Leonato. ‘But what of it, my lord?’
‘Let me put one question to your daughter, and by the natural and fatherly influence you have with her, ask her to answer honestly.’
‘As your father I order you to do so,’ said Leonato.
She moved away from his embrace. ‘Oh God help me!’ she sobbed. ‘Why am I being attacked? What kind of questioning do you call this?’
‘To see if you live up to your name,’ said Claudio.
‘Isn’t it Hero? Who can stain that name with any dishonourable act?’
‘Indeed,’ said Claudio. ‘Hero can. Hero herself can stain Hero’s virtue. Who was that man who talked to you last night at your window between twelve and one? Now, if you’re a virgin, answer that!’
‘I didn’t talk to any man at that hour, my lord!’
‘Well then, you are no virgin,’ said Don Pedro. ‘Leonato, I’m sorry that you have to hear this. On my honour, my brother, this wronged count, and I, saw her, heard her, talking to a ruffian at that time last night, at her bedroom window. He has, a most licentious villain, confessed the vile secret encounters that they’ve had a thousand times.’
‘Stop, stop!’ said Don John, ‘they can’t be named, my lord, can’t be mentioned: there are no words in language offensive enough to utter their names.’ He smiled. ‘And so, pretty lady, I’m sorry about your disreputable conduct.’
Beatrice went to her cousin and took her in her arms. Hero sobbed with abandon. ‘Oh Hero,’ said Claudio sadly. ‘What a Hero you would have been if even half the thoughts and content of your heart had matched your outward beauty. But farewell, you most foul, most fair woman! Farewell. You pure ungodliness and ungodly purity! Because of you I’ll block all love from now on and view all women with suspicion, turning all beauty into negative thoughts, and never see virtue in any of you again.’
Leonato clutched his chest and sank on to a pew. ‘Will someone kill me?’ he said.
‘Cousin!’ screamed Beatrice. ‘She’s fallen!’
‘Come, let’s go,’ said Don John. ‘These things, coming to light like this, have defeated her.’
Don Pedro, Claudio and Don John turned and marched up the aisle. The congregation, stunned, began slowly to drift away. Finally, only Leonato’s family, Benedick and the friar were left. Beatrice was trying to revive the unconscious Hero.
‘How is she?’ said Benedick.
‘Dead I think,’ said Beatrice. She continued to stroke her cousin’s forehead and whisper to her but there was no response. Then she looked up. ‘Help, uncle, she said. Hero! Hero! Uncle! Signior Benedick! Friar!’
Benedick and the friar bent over her too. Leonato, breathing heavily, covered his face with his hands. ‘Oh Fate!’ he cried. ‘Don’t take your heavy hand away. Death is the best cover that can he hoped for for her shame.’
Hero stirred. ‘How are you, cousin Hero?’ said Beatrice.
‘Don’t worry, lady,’ said Friar Francis.
Leonato got up and walked unsteadily to his daughter. ‘Are you waking up?’
‘Yes,’ said Friar Francis. ‘Why shouldn’t she?’
‘Why! Doesn’t every earthly thing proclaim her shame? Was she able to deny the story that’s printed in her blood? Don’t live, Hero: don’t open your eyes. If I thought that you weren’t going to die soon, if I thought your spirits were stronger than your shame, I would kill you myself on the strength of this evidence. Did I grieve that I had only one child? Did I curse nature’s meanness? Oh, you were one too many! Why did I have even one? Why did I ever regard you as lovely? Why didn’t I adopt the child of the beggar at my gates who, when turned out infamously like this, I might have said, ‘that’s not my child – this shame comes from someone else’s loins’? But mine, and mine I loved, and mine I praised, and mine I was so proud of, mine so much that I had no thought for myself, valuing her so much.’ He pointed at her. ‘Why she….. Oh, she’s fallen into a pit of ink: the wide sea doesn’t have enough water to wash her clean again, and not enough salt to make her sound again.’
Benedick touched Leonato’s arm. ‘Sir, sir, be patient. For myself, I’m so amazed that I don’t know what to say.’
‘Oh, on my soul,’ said Beatrice, ‘my cousin has been defamed!’
‘Lady, did you sleep in her room last night?’ said Benedick.
‘No, I didn’t,’ said Beatrice, ‘but until last night I have done so for the last year.’
‘Confirmed, confirmed!’ cried Leonato. ‘Oh that makes the proof that was solid as iron before even stronger. Would the two princes and Claudio, who loved her so much, who wept when speaking about her foulness, lie? Leave her! Let her die.’
‘Listen to me for a moment,’ said Friar Francis, ‘ because I have been silent all this time, just watching this sad course of fortune. I’ve watched the lady and noticed a thousand blushing signs flushing across her face, a thousand changes from wrongly accused shame to angelic innocence. And in her eyes there has been a fire that denies the mistake that these princes have made about her honour. Call me a fool: don’t trust my reading of it, which is informed by all my education. Don’t consider my age, my religious dedication, my calling, nor my devotion to God if my opinion that this lady is innocent is wrong: if she isn’t the victim of some bitter error.’
‘That’s impossible, Friar,’ said Leonato, unable to look at his daughter. ‘You’ve seen that the only redeeming thing she’s capable of is that she won’t add perjury to her sins. She hasn’t denied it. Why are you trying to deny the obvious?’
Friar Francis took Hero’s hand. ‘Lady, who is this man you have been accused of?’
‘Those who have accused me know: I don’t know any such man. If I know any living man more intimately than is fitting to maiden modesty then let me be condemned forever!’ She tried to sit up. ‘Oh, my father, if you can prove that any man talked to me during unsuitable hours, or that I exchanged words with anyone at all last night then reject me, hate me, torture me to death!’
‘There is some serious misunderstanding on the part of the princes,’ said the friar.
Benedick was thoughtful. He nodded. ‘Two of them are absolute examples of honour, and if they’ve been misled in this, John the bastard is behind it.’
Leonato clenched his fists and looked furiously at Hero. ‘I don’t know,’ he said. ‘If they’re telling the truth about her I’ll tear her apart with these hands. If they have wronged her honour, the best of them will hear from me. My blood hasn’t been so dried up with old age, nor has my creativity been so affected by it, nor has fortune deprived me of my means, nor have I lost my friends. They will find a newly awakened physical strength and resolve in me, plenty of means and a choice of enough friends to destroy them.’
‘Don’t do anything yet,’ said the friar. ‘Let me advise you. The princes left your daughter here for dead. Keep her hidden for a while. Put it about that she’s really dead. Go into mourning, put some funereal tokens around your ancient family tomb, and observe all the conventions of a burial.’
‘And then what?’ said Leonato. ‘How will that help?’
‘If it’s properly done, it will change slander of her into remorse, of course,’ said the friar. ‘That’s positive in itself, but there’s more to my plan. On her death, as everyone will regard it, she will be lamented, pitied and forgiven by all who hear about it. It’s always the case that the things we don’t value while we are enjoying them we miss when we lose them and then we think about it, then we see the virtues that we couldn’t while we had them. That will happen with Claudio. When he hears that she died because of his words he will begin to think about her and all her fine qualities will take on a new glow and he will value her more than he did when she was alive. Then, if he ever really loved her, he’ll mourn for her and wish he had never accused her. No, not even if he still believed his accusation to be well-founded. Do this and don’t doubt that it will be successful – more so than I can say. If it isn’t then the belief that she’s dead will soften the impact of her supposed infamy, and if it doesn’t work out, well then you can send her to a reclusive, religious life, as would be fitting for her reputation, away from all eyes, tongues and further injuries.’
‘Take the friar’s advice, Signior Leonato,’ said Benedick. ‘And although you know that I’m very much attached to the prince and Claudio, yet, by my honour I will act on this as justly as if I were you.’
‘As I’m overwhelmed by grief I’ll clutch at anything,’ said Leonato.
‘Good,’ said the friar. ‘Let’s go and do it right away. Desperate ills must have desperate remedies. Come, lady, die so that you can live. Perhaps this wedding day is only postponed. Be patient and be brave.’
Benedick and Beatrice, as though by a silent agreement, lingered after the others had gone. Beatrice’s face was tear stained.
‘Lady Beatrice,’ said Benedick tenderly, ‘have you been crying all this time?’
‘Yes, and I haven’t finished yet,’ she said.
‘I don’t want that,’ he said.
‘It’s not up to you. I don’t need permission.’
‘I really do believe your lovely cousin has been wronged,’ he said.
She looked into his eyes. ‘Ah, how grateful I would be to the man who could put it right.’
‘Is there any way a man could show that friendship?’ he said.
‘A most certain way, but I have no such friend.’
‘Can it be done by a man?’
‘It’s a man’s job, but not yours.’
They gazed at each other for a long time. Then Benedick spoke.
‘I love you more than anything in the world. Isn’t that strange?’
‘As strange as…’ she began. ‘I don’t know. ‘It would be just as easy for me to say that I loved you more than anything in the world… but you shouldn’t believe me… and yet I’m not lying. I’m not confessing anything and I’m not denying anything. I’m upset about my cousin.’
Benedick’s face lit up. He took a step towards her. ‘By my sword, Beatrice, you love me!’ he exclaimed.
‘Don’t swear and then regret it later.’
‘I will swear by my sword, and I will make anyone that says I don’t love you regret it.’
‘You won’t eat your words?’
He took her hand, which she gave freely. ‘With no sauce that you can think of! I swear I love you.’
‘Well then, God forgive me!’
‘For what, sweet Beatrice?’
‘You stopped me just in time. I was about to swear that I loved you.’
‘Then do it with all your heart!’
‘I love you with so much of my heart that there’s none left to swear.’
Benedick took her in his arms and held her. Then he stepped back. ‘Come, command me to do anything for you.’
His expression changed. ‘Ha! Not for the wide world.’
‘You’re killing me by saying no. Goodbye.’ She turned and began walking away.
‘Wait, sweet Beatrice,’ he said.
‘I’ve gone, even though I’m standing here. There’s no love in you.’
He took hold of her again and she struggled in his arms. ‘No, let me go,’ she said.
‘I mean it. I’m going.’
‘We’ll make up first,’ he said.
Her eyes flashed. ‘You dare to be friends with me more easily than fight with my enemy!’ she said.
‘Is Claudio your enemy?’
‘Hasn’t he proved himself to be a full-blown villain, slandering, humiliating, dishonouring my cousin? Oh, I wish I were a man! What? Hold hands with her until they come to join hands and then, in public, bare-faced slander, merciless cruelty… Oh God, I wish I were a man! I would eat his heart in the market place!’
‘Listen to me, Beatrice…’
‘Talk to a man out of a window! What a thing to say!’
‘Yes, but Beatrice…’
‘Dear Hero! She’s wronged, she’s slandered, she’s destroyed.’
‘Princes and counts!’ She sneered. ‘Certainly a princely testimony. A goodly count that. Count Sugar Plum: a lovely gentleman! Oh, if only I were a man! Or that I had a friend who would be a man for me! But manhood has melted into ceremony, bravery into sucking up: and men are now only voices, and glib ones too. A man who can do no more than tell a lie and swear it is now as brave as Hercules. I can’t be a man by wishing, so I’ll die a woman by grieving.’
‘Wait, good Beatrice. By this hand, I love you.’
‘Use it for loving me in some more useful way than swearing by it,’ she said.
‘Do you really think, in your heart, that Count Claudio has wronged Hero?’
‘Yes, as surely as I have a thought or a heart.’
‘That’s enough for me,’ said Benedick. ‘I’m pledged. I’ll challenge him.’ He raised her hand to his lips. ‘I will kiss your hand and leave you. By this hand, Claudio will answer to me. Watch me. Go and comfort your cousin. I’ll tell them she’s dead. And so, farewell.’