Leonato’s devoted brother leant over him as he sat slumped in a chair at the table that they had set out in the shade in preparation for the celebrations.
‘If you go on like this you’ll kill yourself,’ said Antonio. ‘And it’s unwise to pile grief on yourself.’
‘Please, stop giving me advice,’ said Leonato. ‘It’s water off a duck’s back. Don’t keep giving me advice! And I don’t want any comfort unless it’s from someone who’s been through the same thing. Bring me a father who loved his child as much, whose joy in her is as overwhelming as mine, and tell him to talk about patience. Compare his sorrow with mine and if it fits every instance, and if he doesn’t then smile and stroke his beard, tell me it’s not so bad, say ‘ahem’ instead of groan, utter platitudes, try to drown sorrow with philosophy, then bring him to me and I will get some solace from him. But there is no such man, because, brother, it’s easy to give advice and offer comfort to grief that you don’t feel yourself but if you had known it your advice would turn to rage. If a man hasn’t experienced it he will try and calm another’s rage, tie strong passion up in silk threads, try to soothe pain with words. No, it’s every man’s business to tell those who writhe in pain to be patient. Until he’s felt that pain himself. So, don’t give me advice. My griefs cry louder than advice.’
‘You’re being childish,’ said Antonio.
‘I beg of you, be quiet!’ said Leonato. ‘I’m only flesh and blood: there has never yet been a philosopher who could bear the toothache with patience, however much they may have written in the style of gods and discovered life’s great secrets.’
Antonio nodded in sympathy. ‘But still, don’t be the main sufferer. Make those who have offended you suffer too.’
Leonato looked up at his brother. ‘Now you’re talking sense. Don’t worry, I’m going to. I know in my heart that Hero’s been defamed, and Claudio will know that, and so will the prince, and everyone who’s been involved.’
‘Here come the prince and Claudio in a hurry,’ said Antonio as the two men approached them, dressed for travelling.
‘Good afternoon, good afternoon,’ said Don Pedro, to each brother in turn.
‘Good afternoon to you both,’ said Claudio.
Leonato stood up shakily, drew himself up, and faced them squarely. ‘Now listen here, my lords….’ he began.
Don Pedro interrupted him. ‘We’re in a hurry, Leonato.’
Antonio put his hand on his brother’s shoulder.
‘In a hurry, my lord!’ exclaimed Leonato. ‘You’re in a hurry suddenly?’ His brother gripped his shoulder. ‘Well, it doesn’t matter,’ he said.
‘No, don’t quarrel with us, good old man,’ said the prince.
‘If he could put things right by quarrelling some of us would lie low,’ said Antonio.
‘Who has wronged him?’ said Claudio.
Leonato’s face was a picture of fury. He took a step towards Claudio. ‘You!’ he exclaimed. ‘You wrong me, you hypocrite, you….. What! Don’t touch your sword. I’m not afraid of you.’
Claudio raised his hands. ‘I’m sorry,’ he said. ‘Really, I didn’t mean to give the impression that I was about to draw my sword.’
‘Tush, tush, man, don’t patronise me: don’t toy with me. I’m not past it and I’m not a fool. I’m not bragging, as an old man, about the things I did in my youth, or what I would do if I weren’t old. Understand this, Claudio, and understand it well: you have wronged both my innocent child and me so much that I’m forced to put my age aside, and in spite of my grey hairs and the infirmity of a long life, challenge you to a duel. You have slandered my innocent child. It’s killed her and she’s lying buried with her ancestors: oh, in a tomb free of scandal except for this, fashioned by your villainy!’
‘Yours, Claudio, yours, I tell you.’
‘You’re wrong, old man,’ said Don Pedro.
Leonato’s eyes were full of tears. ‘My lord, my lord,’ he said, ‘I’ll prove it in a duel, if he dares. In spite of his skill in fencing and his fitness, his spring-like youth and peak of strength.’
‘Never!’ said Claudio. ‘I won’t do it.’
‘Do you think you can brush me aside just like that? You’ve killed my child. If you kill me, boy, you’ll be killing a man.’
Antonio had watched the young man’s apparent callousness and lack of concern about what he had done and suddenly he was as incensed as his brother. ‘He’ll kill two of us,’ he said, ‘and two real men too. But that’s beside the point. Let him kill us one by one.’ He drew himself up and faced Claudio. ‘Kill me first and you can boast. Let him accept my challenge. Come, follow me, boy, come on, sir boy, come, follow me. Sir boy, I’ll whip you in spite of your fancy fencing. Yes, as I am a gentleman, I will.’
It was Leonato’s turn to be a calming influence. ‘Brother…’
‘Stay out of it,’ said Antonio. ‘God knows, I loved my niece: and she is dead, slandered to death by villains who dare face a man as much as I dare grab a snake by the tongue. Boys, fools, braggards, knaves, milksops!’
Don Pedro and Claudio watched the anger of these two elderly brothers with amazement. ‘Brother Antony…’ said Leonato.
‘Stay out of it! What man!’ he continued. ‘I know them: oh yes. And what they’re worth. Completely. Scuffling, show-off, fashion-chasing boys who lie and cheat, deprave and slander, go about grotesquely, dress hideously, and utter a few bold words about how they might hurt their enemies if they dared, and that’s all they are!’
‘But brother Antony…’
‘Come, it doesn’t matter,’ said Antonio. ‘Don’t interfere! Let me deal with this.’
Gentlemen both,’ said Don Pedro. ‘We don’t want to try your patience. I’m heartily sorry about your daughter’s death. But really, she was accused of nothing other than was true and fully proved.’
‘My lord, my lord…’ protested Leonato.
‘I’m not going to listen,’ said Don Pedro.
‘You aren’t?’ said Leonato. ‘Come, brother, let’s go.’
The brothers set off for the villa. Leonato called over his shoulder. ‘I will be heard!’
‘And some of us will suffer,’ said Antonio.
Don Pedro and Claudio had little time to think about the encounter because the man they had been looking for was walking towards them.
‘Look,’ said the prince, ‘here’s the man we were looking for.’
‘Now, signior, what news?’ said Claudio as Benedick approached.
‘Good day, my lord,’ said Benedick.
Don Pedro laughed. ‘Welcome, signior,’ he said. ‘You’ve arrived just too late to intervene in what was almost a fight.’
‘We almost had our noses bitten off by two old men without teeth,’ said Claudio.
Don Pedro shook his head in disbelief. ‘Leonato and his brother. What do you think? If we had fought I have a feeling we would have proved too young for them.’
‘There’s no real triumph in a false quarrel,’ said Benedick. ‘I came to find you both.’
‘We’ve been looking all over for you,’ said Claudio, ‘because we’re very down and need some cheering up. Will you show us your sense of humour?’
‘It’s in my scabbard,’ said Benedick. ‘Do you want me to draw it?’
They both laughed appreciatively, while Benedick maintained a strained, unsmiling expression.
‘Do you wear your sense of humour at your side?’ said Don Pedro.
‘No-one ever did,’ said Claudio, ‘though many have worn themselves beside their sense of humour. I’ll ask you to draw, as we ask minstrels to draw their instruments for our entertainment.’
‘I could swear he looks pale,’ said Don Pedro. ‘Are you sick? Or angry about something?’
‘What?’ said Claudio. ‘Cheer up, man! Care may have killed the cat but you have substance enough in you to kill care.’
‘Sir, I’ll meet you in the lists if you want to take me on,’ said Benedick. ‘You had better change the subject.’
‘No then, give him another lance: this one has snapped,’ said Claudio.
Benedick was struggling to control himself.
‘He’s changing more and more,’ said Don Pedro. ‘I think he really is angry.’
‘Well if he is, he’ll just have to contain himself,’ said Claudio.
‘Can I have a private word?’ said Benedick.
‘God save me from a challenge,’ said Claudio, laughing. He winked at the prince then followed Benedick, who stopped when they were out of earshot of the prince.
Benedick faced the count with a grim face. ‘You are a villain,’ he said. When Claudio started laughing he put his hand up. ‘No, I’m not joking. I’ll show you, whenever you dare, with whatever you dare, and when you dare. Take me seriously or I will proclaim you a coward. You have killed a sweet lady, and you will be held responsible. Let me hear from you.’
As they walked back to Don Pedro Claudio laughed and slapped Benedick on the back. ‘Well, I’ll meet you, so that I can have some entertainment.’
‘What?’ said Don Pedro. ‘A party, a party?’
‘Indeed,’ said Claudio, ‘I thank him. He’s invited me to eat all the most stupid and harmless animals – calves and capons – which, if I don’t carve them most carefully they will tell me that my knife’s useless.’ He grinned at Benedick. ‘Will I find the simpleton woodcock there too?’
‘Very funny,’ said Benedick.
‘Let me tell you how Beatrice praised your intelligence the other day,’ said Don Pedro. I said you had a fine intelligence. ‘True,’ she said, ‘a fine small one.’ ‘No,’ I said, ‘a great intelligence.’ Right,’ she says, ‘a great gross one.’ ‘No,’ I said, ‘a good wit.’ ‘True,’ she said, ‘it doesn’t hurt anyone.’ ‘No,’ I said, ‘the gentleman is clever.’ ‘Certainly,’ she said, ‘a clever gentleman.’ ‘Yes,’ I said, he speaks several tongues.’ ‘I believe that,’ she said, ‘because he swore something to me on Monday night that he unswore on Tuesday morning: there’s a double tongue – there’s two tongues.’ And so she carried on for an hour, subverting your special qualities, but then, finally, she ended with a sigh, saying that you were the most handsome man in Italy.’
‘After which she wept heartily and said she didn’t care,’ said Claudio.
‘Yes, she did, but for all that, if she didn’t hate him so much she would love him,’ said Don Pedro. ‘The old man’s daughter told us everything.’
‘Everything, everything,’ said Claudio. ‘She was found out, like Adam, trying to hide from God in the garden,.’
‘So when are we going to put the wild bull’s horns on the prudent Benedick’s head?’ said Don Pedro.
‘Yes,’ said Claudio, ‘and a text underneath, Here lives Benedick the married man?’
‘Farewell, boy,’ said Benedick. ‘You know my mind. I’ll leave you now to your old women’s humour. You use jokes in the way that braggarts use their swords, which don’t hurt anyone, thank god.’ He half bowed to Don Pedro. ‘My lord, I thank you for your many kindnesses to me. I must break off my friendship with you. Your brother has fled from Messina. Among you you have killed a sweet and innocent lady. As for my Lord Lackbeard there, he and I will meet in a duel. Until then, good luck to him.’ He came to attention, saluted, turned sharply and marched away.
‘He’s serious,’ said Don Pedro.
‘Deadly serious,’ said Claudio, ‘ and I’ll bet it’s because of Beatrice.’
‘And he’s challenged you.’
‘Most seriously,’ said Claudio.
‘What a fine thing a man is when he gets dressed in his duelling clothes and forgets to put on his intelligence!’ exclaimed Don Pedro.
‘That’s when he’s a hero to a fool,’ said Claudio, ‘but a fool is wise man compared with someone like that.’
‘But wait,’ said Don Pedro, ‘give me a moment. I must pull myself together and be serious. Didn’t he say my brother had fled?’
A servant came into sight, leading a very odd group of people. At its head was Dogberry, closely followed by Verges. Then came the whole of the watch, two of them leading Conrade and Borachio, bound by ropes. Dogberry stopped when he saw the two noblemen. He turned and took the rope that bound Borachio and pulled him forward.
‘Come you, sir: if justice cannot tame you, she shall ne’er weigh more reasons in her balance: nay, an you be a cursing hypocrite once, you must be looked to.’
‘What’s this?’ said Don Pedro. ‘Two of my brother’s men bound! Borachio one of them!’
‘Ask them what they’ve done, my lord,’ said Claudio.
‘What have these men done, officers?’ said Don Pedro.
‘Marry, sir,’ said Dogberry, ‘they have committed false report: moreover, they have spoken untruths: secondarily, they are slanders: sixth and lastly, they have belied a lady: thirdly, they have verified unjust things: and, to conclude, they are lying knaves.’
In spite of the apparent seriousness of it, Don Pedro and Claudio looked at each other and burst into laughter.
‘First, I ask you what they have done,’ said Don Pedro: ‘thirdly, I ask you what their offence is: sixth and lastly, why they are convicted: and, to conclude, what they are accused of.’
Claudio applauded. ‘Perfectly argued,’ he said,’ and in his own language, and I must say, nicely put.’
‘Who have you offended, masters,’ said Don Pedro, taking the rope from Dogberry and dropping it to the ground, ‘that you’ve got yourselves tied up? This learned constable is too subtle to be understood. What have you done?’
Borachio looked nervously at Claudio and licked his lips. ‘Sweet prince, I won’t hold anything back,’ he said. ‘Listen to me and let this count kill me. I have deceived your very eyes. What your joint intelligence couldn’t fathom, these ignorant idiots have brought to light. They heard me confessing in the dark to this man how your brother, Don John, employed me to slander the Lady Hero: how you were brought into the orchard to see me court Margaret, dressed in Hero’s clothes, and how you disgraced her instead of marrying her. They have it on record, and I am so ashamed that I would rather die than go over it again. The lady is dead because of my and my master’s accusation, and, to cut a long story short, I want only to accept my punishment.’
‘Isn’t this speech like a sword through your body?’ said Don Pedro as Claudio seemed to shrivel up.
‘It was like drinking poison,’ said the pale Claudio as he reached for a chair.
Don Pedro turned back to Borachio. ‘But did my brother put you up to this?’
‘Yes, and paid me well for doing it.’
‘He’s rotten through and through,’ said Don Pedro, ‘and he’s fled because of it.’
Claudio’s forehead rested on the table. ‘Sweet Hero,’ he moaned, ‘your image has come back to my mind as the beautiful creature that I fell in love with.’
‘Come, bring away the plaintiffs,’ said Dogberry. ‘By this time our sexton hath reformed Signior Leonato of the matter: and, masters, do not forget to specify, when time and place shall serve, that I am an ass.’
‘Here, here comes master Signior Leonato, and the Sexton too,’ said Verges.
Leonato, his brother supporting him, walked slowly to them and stopped. He surveyed the watch and their charges. ‘Which one is the villain? Let me look into his eyes so that when I ever see another man like him I can avoid him. Which one is he?’
‘If you want to know who your wronger is, look at me,’ said Borachio.
‘Are you the slave who killed my innocent child?’
‘Yes, only me.’
‘No, not so, rogue,’ said Leonato, ‘you’re lying. Standing here are a pair of honourable men. A third, who also had a hand in it, has fled.’
Claudio rose unsteadily and stood beside Don Pedro.
‘I thank you, princes, for my daughter’s death,’ said Leonato. ‘Regard it as one of your high and worthy actions. It was bravely done, when you think about it.’
‘I don’t expect you to listen to me,’ said Claudio, his voice full of humility, ‘but I must speak out. Choose whatever revenge you think suitable. Subject me to whatever penance your imagination can devise for my sin. And yet I didn’t sin except in being deceived.’
‘On my soul, nor I,’ said Don Pedro. ‘And yet, to satisfy this good old man I will do anything he tells me.’
‘I can’t tell you to bring my daughter back to life,’ said Leonato. ‘That would be impossible. But I would ask you to make it known to the people of Messina that she died innocently. And if you want to show your remorse, place an epitaph on her tomb and pay homage to her body. Do it tonight. Then come to my house tomorrow morning, and although you couldn’t be my son-in-law, be my nephew. My brother has a daughter, almost a copy of my dead child, and she’s the sole heir of both of us. If you give her the right you should have given her cousin my revenge will die.’
Claudio rushed to him, took his hand and kissed it. ‘Oh noble sir,’ he said, your great generosity brings tears to my eyes. I embrace your offer and will do as you say.’
‘I’ll expect you tomorrow, then,’ said Leonato. ‘And now I’ll go. This worthless man will be brought face to face with Margaret who, I believe, was part of it, hired to do it by your brother.’
‘No!’ exclaimed Borachio. ‘I swear she wasn’t. Nor did she know what she was doing when she spoke to me. She’s always been honest and virtuous as far as I know.’
‘Moreover, sir,’ said Dogberry, ‘which indeed is not under white and black, this plaintiff here, the offender, did call me ass: I beseech you, let it be remembered in his punishment. And also, the watch heard them talk of one Deformed: they say be wears a key in his ear and a lock hanging by it, and borrows money in God’s name, the which he hath used so long and never paid that now men grow hard-hearted and will lend nothing for God’s sake: pray you, examine him upon that point.’
Leonato shook his hand. ‘I thank you for the care you took and your honest pains.’
‘Your worship speaks like a most thankful and reverend youth: and I praise God for you.’
Leonato took a purse from his pocket and handed it to Dogberry. ‘This is for your trouble,’ he said.
‘God save the foundation!’ exclaimed Dogberry as he pocketed it.
‘Go,’ said Leonato. ‘I relieve you of responsibility for your prisoner, and I thank you.’
‘I leave an arrant knave with your worship: which I beseech your worship to correct yourself, for the example of others,’ said Dogberry. ‘God keep your worship! I wish your worship well: God restore you to health! I humbly give you leave to depart: and if a merry meeting may be wished, God prohibit it!’ He nodded to his friend. ‘Come, neighbour.’
‘Until tomorrow morning, lords,’ said Leonato. ‘Farewell.’
‘Farewell, my lords,’ said Antonio. ‘We’ll see you tomorrow.’
‘We’ll be here,’ said Don Pedro.
‘I’ll mourn Hero tonight,’ said Claudio.
Leonato spoke to the watch. ‘Bring these fellows. We’ll talk to Margaret and see how her acquaintance with this lewd fellow developed.’