A messenger arrives at the house of Leonato, Governor of Messina, to inform him that the Spanish Prince Don Pedro, the Florentine Claudio, and the Paduan Benedick have returned victorious from a recent battle. They have lost almost no men, and Leonato is pleased, saying that “a victory is twice itself when the achiever brings home full numbers.” (1.1.8-9)
Messina was involved in the “Italian Wars,” of the 16th Century. This conflict involved many kingdoms, the Papal States, and the city states of Italy. Don Pedro, Claudio and Benedick are all from different places, but have been brought together by war. The happy ending of the real war, celebrated by Leonato, also hints at the happy ending of the “war of wits,” in the comedy of the play.
Beatrice, Leonato’s niece, asks the messenger about Benedick, a Lord of Padua. She makes sarcastic remarks about him, punning on the messenger’s praise. She calls him a “stuff’d man” (1.1.58-59) and implies that he is no match for her in a battle of wits. When she hears that he is good friends with Claudio, she scoffs that he changes friends as quickly as he changes the fashion of his hat. She compares Benedick to a disease, from which the sufferer “runs mad.” Leonato explains to the messenger that there is a “merry war of wits,” (1.1.62-63) between Benedick and Beatrice.
Beatrice’s punning argument with the messenger gives us a taste of her sharp wit before the arrival of Benedick. The statements she makes set up a powerful irony: it is she herself who ends up “running mad” with love from the Benedick disease she jokes about, and it is her own feelings about others which end up changing as quickly as the fashion of hats. Leonato’s phrase “merry war” sets up a metaphorical parallel between wars of weaponry and wars of wit and love that lasts throughout the play.
Don Pedro, Don John, Balthazar, Claudio and Benedick arrive at the house. Don Pedro apologetically jokes that Leonato is “come to meet [his] trouble,” (1.1.96-97) meaning that he will have to go to the effort of housing and entertaining his new guests. Soon after, Benedick and Beatrice begin trading insults and sarcastic remarks. Benedick calls Beatrice a “parrot teacher,” (1.1.138) and both boast of their complete resistance to the charms of the opposite sex.
Don Pedro’s apology is ironic because the “trouble” he innocently jokes about causing ends up becoming very real later in the play: along with Claudio, he will humiliate Hero at her wedding. When Benedick calls Beatrice a “parrot-teacher,” he is accusing her of copying him in their argument. As it turns out, they are both imitators. Each will later fall in love with the other after hearing that the other has fallen in love with them.
Leonato invites the new arrivals to stay at his home for a month, and Don Pedro accepts on behalf of everyone. Privately, Claudio tells Benedick that he has fallen for Leonato’s daughter Hero, and asks him what he thinks. Benedick replies that he “looked on her,” but “noted her not.” (1.1.164) He finds her unattractive, and replies to each of Claudio’s expressions of praise with mockery or disinterest. He changes the meaning of Claudio’s metaphors: when Claudio asks “Can the world buy such a jewel [as Hero]?” Benedick replies “Yea, and a case to put it into.” (1.1.181-182) He complains that there are not enough men committed to the bachelor's life, and compares marriage to wearing a yoke, like a beast of burden in the field. He also claims that Beatrice, despite her bad personality, is more beautiful than Hero.
Benedick’s use of “noting,” is the first instance of the games played with this word in the play: here, he uses it to make a distinction between looking at and noticing, i.e. just seeing something and finding something to be meaningful. The pun of the play is that many things that are “nothing,” (i.e. events which have not really happened) are nonetheless “noted” by the characters. Just as he did previously with Beatrice, Benedick makes Claudio’s language mean something other than what he intended. Claudio uses jewel to mean “rare, unique beauty,” but Benedick uses it to mean something easily bought and ornamental. This is an example of how much reality is defined by language in the play: Benedick resists love and marriage mostly by using clever words.Benedick’s casual mention of Beatrice’s beauty hints at their future relationship.
Don Pedro enters the room where Benedick and Claudio are speaking, and asks what they are being so secretive about. Benedick instantly tells him about Claudio’s love for Hero. Claudio attempts to deny it, but Benedick's teasing and Don Pedro’s sympathetic interest bring it out of him. Benedick says that he would rather burn at the stake than admit Hero is worthy of being loved by Claudio. Accusing him of being a heretic in matters of love and beauty, Don Pedro swears that Benedick will someday fall in love himself, quoting the proverb that “In time the savage bull doth bear the yoke.” (1.1.260-261) Benedick wittily denies it, promising that if he ever gets married, they might as well hang him like a blind cupid over a brothel, or paint him like a horned animal on a ridiculous sign reading “Here you may see Benedick the married man.” (1.1.267-268) The good-natured argument ends, and Don Pedro sends Benedick to tell Leonato they will all be coming to supper soon.
Spilled secrets and other kinds of hearsay are the most common plot device in the play: almost everything happens because the secret of someone’s love (real or pretended) has got out among the other characters. Love is often compared to religion in this play. Benedick imagines himself as a heretic, burned at the stake for his resistance to love, which everyone else believes in. Don Pedro’s proverb means that even the most proud independent people eventually end up tangled in relationships like marriage. The image of the bull suggests the wildness of the bachelor, while the yoke represents the loss of freedom that comes with settling down. The horns and ridiculous sign which Benedick mentions suggest the possible shame involved in love and marriage—the cuckold, a man whose wife has cheated on him, is traditionally represented with horns.
Now that Benedick is gone, Claudio speaks with Don Pedro more honestly about his love. He explains that before he left for war, he looked at Hero with “a soldier’s eye,” (1.1.297-298) but now has more delicate feelings for her. To help Claudio win Hero’s heart and hand in marriage, Don Pedro proposes a plan. He plans to disguise himself as Claudio during the evening’s masked dance, and to woo Hero for him, “tak[ing] her hearing prisoner with the force / And strong encounter of my amorous tale.” (1.1.323-324) Claudio agrees.
Here, Claudio introduces the comparison of love and war that comes up many times in the play. Claudio contrasts them: war is rough and has no place for love, which is soft and delicate. Don Pedro, however, speaks of love as though it is war, suggesting that they are more similar than Claudio thinks. His plan is like a military strategy, and he even talks about taking Hero’s hearing “prisoner,” as soldiers might take prisoners on the battlefield.