Antonio, Leonato, Beatrice and Hero discuss Don John’s bad attitude, comparing him with Benedick. Beatrice says that Don John talks too little, while Benedick talks too much. Beatrice jokes that a man somewhere in between would make a good husband. Leonato cautions Beatrice about her wit, warning that a man will never marry her if she speaks too bitingly. Beatrice says she is thankful to God she has no husband, in some part because she hates beards. When Leonato advises her to find a beardless husband, she suggests that such a husband would not be manly enough to deal with her. Further, Beatrice jokes that all men are sons of Adam and thus her brothers—incest would be a sin. When the conversation turns to Hero and the expected proposal from Claudio, Beatrice advises her to “dance out the answer,” (1.1.72) and not to give in too quickly. She compares love to a dance: it begins quickly and excitingly, slows down with marriage, and ends with exhaustion and sinking into the grave. The conversation ends when the partygoers arrive.
Beatrice defends herself against the idea of marriage by disqualifying every option Leonato gives her. Beards become more important as the play goes on. Here, beards are used as a symbol of masculinity: Beatrice divides men into bearded men, who wouldn’t put up with her, and beardless men, who wouldn’t be able to handle her. Beatrice also compares love to a dance, and divides it into three stages. Both she and the action of the play itself present love as a sequence of steps or poses, rather than as a unique bond.
The dance begins. Don Pedro, masked and assumed to be Claudio, goes off to propose to Hero. She wants to see his face, but he charmingly deflects her request. Benedick, also masked, speaks with Beatrice. Pretending not to know who he is, she asks if it’s true that Signior Benedick says she gets all her witty jokes from a book. When the disguised Benedick asks who this Benedick is, she says he is “the prince’s jester: a very dull fool.” (2.1.137) She says he must be somewhere in the “fleet,” (party) and regrets that he hasn’t “boarded [her],” (come to argue with her). (2.1.143) Benedick leaves. Meanwhile, Don John and Borachio, attempting to cause mischief, approach Claudio and pretend to mistake him for Benedick. They convince him that Don Pedro is in love with Hero, and wooing her for himself. Claudio feels jealous and betrayed.
Prince Don Pedro’s wooing of Hero in disguise is the one trick that is not uncovered by the end of the play. By calling him a fool, Beatrice suggests that the other characters are laughing at Benedick, not because of his sarcastic wit. Beatrice uses a situation from naval warfare to ask why Benedick has not come to match wits with her. The “merry war,” of wits is compared to real war in a metaphor that extends throughout the play.
Claudio concludes that in love, you cannot even trust your friends. Delivering a monologue, he observes that lovers should trust only their own senses, and never the information or help of others: “Let every eye negotiate for itself / And trust no agent.” (2.1.177-178) When Benedick arrives to tell him that Don Pedro has wooed Hero for him, he refuses to believe it, and mopes away. Alone, Benedick complains about Beatrice’s insults, swearing that he isn’t as she says and promising revenge. Don Pedro arrives, looking to give Claudio the good news. He also tells Benedick that Beatrice has been offended by him. Hearing this, Benedick erupts with frustration about Beatrice’s insults. He complains that he feels like a man “with a whole army shooting at me,” (2.1.247) and that “every word stabs.” (2.1.248-249)
Ironically, Claudio’s decision not to trust anyone is based on his trust in the lie Borachio has just told him. Claudio’s distrust of hearsay and the help of others in love would be a good warning for every character in this play. That Benedick is hurt by Beatrice’s insults serves to show that he cares what she thinks—a hint that he will later fall in love with her. Speaking of their battle of wits, he again uses military metaphors.
Just as Benedick is speaking of her, Beatrice arrives, along with Claudio, Leonato and Hero. Benedick and Beatrice begin arguing bitterly. A remark Beatrice makes seems to imply that she once had a romance with Benedick, which ended badly. Angry, Benedick departs. Don Pedro announces the good news: Claudio and Hero are going to get married. Claudio is overjoyed to the point of speechlessness. When Beatrice complains that everyone is getting married but her, Don Pedro promises to find her a husband. Beatrice flirts with Don Pedro, and then leaves in a good mood, happy about her cousin Hero’s engagement. Don Pedro, Leonato, and Claudio set the wedding day for the next Monday. In the meantime, Don Pedro proposes a plan to bring Benedick and Beatrice together. He boasts that if they can do it, they will prove themselves better love-gods than Cupid.
The hint that Beatrice and Benedick may once have been lovers serves to explain their fighting, and set up their later romance. As Claudio’s shaming of Hero will later demonstrate, love and hate are not so far apart. Claudio’s surprise at his good fortune here is parallel to his surprise in the final scene of the play, when he finds out that Hero is still alive. It is surprising that Beatrice— who claimed she never wanted to marry at the beginning of this scene—now seems to want to. In Much Ado, love often comes through imitation: Beatrice is inspired by Hero’s engagement, just as she will late be inspired by Benedick’s supposed love for her.