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Act 1, Scene 1

It was a hot morning in Messina. The only thing that interrupted the clear blue of the sky was the wispy smoke that rose lazily from Mount Etna. As usual, the governor’s villa was filled with young people enjoying themselves with music, sports and conversation. An ensemble of minstrels played and sang fashionable songs that they had brought from Florence; two muscular fellows wrestled, cheered on by a group of spectators of both sexes, while the garden was dotted with pairs and trios, sitting in the shade of the huge pines, chatting.

Leonato’s villa was magnificent. He had carved out his vineyards and orchards from a countryside that was otherwise covered with lava and overgrown with cacti. From the lawn in front of the villa there was a spectacular view of the blue ocean and the Italian mainland. It was a place of pleasure, with tennis courts , gardens, and even a maze. Leonato considered himself to be the most fortunate of men. His life was filled with pleasure. He was surrounded by a loving family – his daughter, Hero; his niece, Beatrice; and his brother Antonio – who all lived with him. He was always ready to entertain guests and there was never a shortage of fun. Life at the governor’s villa was splendid.

On that particular summer morning an officer arrived while Leonato was in the middle of a fencing bout with Beatrice. She was winning. He was used to that and, being the man he was, he did not show any false pride, but congratulated her on each hit. The officer waited politely until they had finished. Leonato acknowledged his defeat with exaggerated bows to the cheering guests then shook the officer’s hand. The young man gave him a letter.

Leonato opened it. Hero and Beatrice watched his face as he read. His eyes opened wide then the creases around them were animated as he grinned delightedly. He held the letter up high as the young people gathered around him.

‘I learn from this letter, that Don Pedro of Arragon is arriving in Messina today,’ he said. A wave of excitement swept round the group and there was a buzz of anticipation.

‘He must be very close by now,’ the messenger told them. ‘He wasn’t more than nine miles away when I left him.’

Don Pedro was an old friend of Leonato’s. His military campaigns led him far afield and his return to Europe always brought him through Messina. His visits were high points in the life of the governor’s villa.

‘How many gentlemen have they lost in this action?’ said Leonato.

‘Oh, very few of any rank,’ the messenger told him, ‘and no one well-known.’

‘It’s a double victory then,’ said Leonato, ‘to bring a full complement home.’

He read the letter again. ‘I see here that Don Pedro heaps praise on a young Florentine called Claudio.’

‘Much deserved too,’ said the officer, ‘and decorated by Don Pedro. He has conducted himself well beyond the promise of his age, performing the feats of a lion in the guise of a lamb.’ The young man laughed. ‘In fact, he went so far beyond expectation that you mustn’t expect me to tell you how.’

‘He has an uncle here in Messina who will be very happy to hear that,’ said Leonato.

‘He already knows. When I arrived here I went to him first, with a letter. And he was indeed overjoyed; to the point of tears, in fact.’

‘He cried, did he?’

‘Most profusely.’

‘Good,’ said Leonato. ‘Tears of joy are the most genuine kind, and so much better than tears of sorrow.’

‘Excuse me, sir,’ said Beatrice, who had been listening with great interest, ‘has Signior Show-off survived the wars?’

The officer looked puzzled. ‘I’m sorry, madam, I don’t know anyone of that name. No, there’s no-one of that name in the army.’

Leonato was puzzled too. ‘Who are you talking about?’ he said.

Hero knew who her cousin was referring to. ‘She means Signior Benedick of Padua,’ she said.

‘Oh him!’ The messenger laughed. ‘Yes, he’s returned, and just as pleasant as ever.’

‘He once set up an archery tournament here between himself and Cupid,’ said Beatrice. ‘Cupid never showed up of course, so my uncle’s jester took his place and the two of them had a ridiculous shooting contest with each other.’

Leonato nodded vigorously, remembering the occasion.

‘But tell me,’ said Beatrice, ‘how many did he kill and then eat during these wars? Or rather, how many did he kill and bring back with him? Because I promised to eat every man he killed.’

‘Honestly, niece,’ said Leonato, ‘you goad Signior Benedick too much, but he’ll get even, you mark my words.’ He winked at Hero.

The messenger was becoming even more bewildered. He wondered what the gallant and popular Signior Benedick had done to deserve this attack from such a beautiful woman. ‘He fought bravely in these wars, madam,’ he said.

Beatrice showed him an astonished face. ‘You mean you had all those rotting bodies and he helped to eat them! He’s a very brave eater; he’s got an excellent appetite and will guzzle anything.’

The messenger laughed. ‘And he’s a good soldier too, lady,’ he said.

‘A good soldier when it comes to conquering ladies but how is he with men?’

‘A gentleman among gentlemen and a man among men, stuffed full of all the qualities a man needs.’

Some of the girls giggled and Leonato shook his finger at them in mock reprimand.

‘I agree that he’s a stuffed man,’ she said, ‘but stuffed with what? Don’t answer that, we’re all sinners in our own way.’

‘You must excuse my niece,’ said Leonato. ‘There’s a kind of love hate relationship between her and Signior Benedick. They never meet without a battle of wits between them.’

‘And he never wins,’ said Beatrice. ‘In our last skirmish four of his five wits went limping off and now he has to make do with only one, and that’s barely enough to keep him warm – not enough to make him as bright as his horse, hardly enough to make him recognisable as human. But tell me, who’s his bosom friend these days? He takes up with a new one every month.’

‘You’re exaggerating,’ said the messenger.

‘Not at all,’ she said. ‘He wears his allegiances as he wears his hat, always changing its shape according to the latest fashion.’

‘I can see he’s not in your good books,’ said the messenger.

‘No, and if he were I would burn my library. But tell me, who is his latest friend? Is there no young scrapper that he’s currently corrupting?’

‘He spends most of his time with Claudio, the young man mentioned in Don Pedro’s letter.’

‘Oh Lord!’ Beatrice shook her head. ‘He’ll infect him like a disease – Signior Show-off is more easily caught than the plague, and the infected eventually goes mad. God help the noble Claudio if he’s caught the Benedick: it will cost him a thousand pounds to be cured.’

The messenger laughed nervously. ‘I’d better stay friends with you, madam.’

‘Do that, good friend,’ she said.

‘Well at least you won’t go mad!’ said Leonato.

‘No,’ she said, laughing. ‘Not until we have a heat wave in January!’