The setting for the play is jovial and it appears to be a beautiful haven. The four characters are in an orchard, which Shakespeare has used as a device to suggest symbols of nature, beauty, procreation, marriage and abundance. There is also the description of honey suckle, often associated with perfume, romance and sensuality. All of these images are used by Shakespeare to give a basis for the themes and intentions that are going to be introduced in the rest of the play. However, the orchard could also be used by Shakespeare as a vehicle of association with the Garden of Eden along with which follows the idea of the serpent brought to destroy and destruct reminding the audience that all is not as it seems.
Scene one is set in the house of Leonato suggests to the audience that this must be the focal point of play and that Leonato is a momentous figure, as well as wealthy and of high social order. Shakespeare employs the device of a letter to introduce the characters in an interesting way and provide background information, bringing the play to a speedy start. The element of speed is also reinforced as the messenger reveals that the prince “was not three leagues off” when he left him, informing the audience the action will soon start.
The messenger also refers to a battle, introducing another character “a young Florentine called Claudio” and outlines how many men had been lost “but few of any sort, and none of name,” meaning that no one “important” had been killed. Shakespeare used this quote, because it is a clear depiction of the Social and Historical context of that time.
Shakespeare uses the reiteration of Claudio’s youth throughout their conversation to emphasise to the audience that his age is of relevance to the rest of the play and puts forth queries of how it might affect his character. “Beyond the promise of his age.” And “figure of a lamb, the feats of a lion.” Claudio goes on to display his “callow youth”. Shakespeare depicts this firstly by showing that Claudio has only become interested in love now that “war thoughts have left their places vacant”, as if it is merely something to do. It is also displayed in the fact that he has no disagreements in the plan of Don Pedro “wooing” in Claudio’s name in order to gain Hero’s hand. This outlines his immaturity and Shakespeare has cleverly suggested inexperience in love and therefore his gullibility in believing Don John’s deception.
Shakespeare uses Beatrice’s entrance into the conversation of Leonato and the messenger to vividly illustrate her character. She speaks without being spoken to and then goes on to dominate the Conversation Previously being held by two men.
This highlights to the audience the conspicuous contrast between Hero and Beatrice, Hero shows herself to be quiet, polite and helpful (only having one line in the whole scene) where as it is apparent that Beatrice is obviously quite different to the conventional Elizabethan women.
In addition Shakespeare uses Beatrice’s first line to mock Benedick’s character, referring to him as “Signor Montanto”, however, although Beatrice appears to be mocking Benedick, this shows the audience that she must care about him, as he is the first thing that she asks about.
Shakespeare sheds light on the character of Benedick with insinuations of him being a ladies man “challenged cupid” and “as pleasant as ever” and not the best of fighters, “I promise to eat all of his killings”. This is done by Shakespeare to prepare the audience for the character of Benedick and for them to anticipate his arrival.
“And a good solider too, lady” “and a good solider to a lady” is a play on words using punctuation that Shakespeare uses to show how quick witted, clever and amusing Beatrice is.
These qualities of Beatrice’s character would probably be why she is described as being involved in a “merry war” and “squirmish of Wit.” These phrases illustrate the relationship between Beatrice and Benedick, always arguing but always harmless. It also shows that they have known each other for a very long time, which is also restated when Beatrice says “I know you of old”. Shakespeare provides this background so that without being aware of it their relationship already has a perfect foundation and when they do fall in love it is the fact that they know each other so well that makes their relationship true and strong. Shakespeare also uses their characters to bring an element of humour to the play and lead the audience to anticipate the arrival of Benedick even further.
“You’ll never run mad, niece” meaning that she will never marry. “no, not ’til a hot January.” Shakespeare uses this sentence to show the audience that the character of Beatrice has no intention to marry once again illustrating the social and historical contrast between Beatrice and the women of her time.
When Don Pedro and the other soldiers enter the scene they act very gentlemanly, complimenting one another, creating a formal tone. After the greeting the tone becomes more colloquial. “Her mother hath many time told me so” is a sexually orientated joke suggesting Hero’s mother had been indecent and reinforces how woman were thought to be unfaithful and untrustworthy in that time. Shakespeare uses this joke, as it is very apt in relation to Hero’s future predicament in the theme of the play.
The audience would be eager to view the “merry war” between Beatrice and Benedick and Shakespeare does not make them wait too long. They predictably go on to insult each other, “rare parrot-teacher” and “A bird of my tongue is better than a beast of yours”. Shakespeare also uses their argument as a vehicle to reveal similarities between their characters that make their future relationship even more entertaining for the audience; Benedick’s ‘hard heart’ and similarly Beatrice’s ‘cold blood’ both insinuate that they both have no desire for love. Ironically, they may be more suited to each other than they think.
Following the end of Beatrice and Benedick’s quarrel Don Pedro announces that Leonato had invited them to say with him for as long as they wish. This emphasises the good feelings in the house and shows the Christian virtue of hospitality and carries on the religious imagery. To contrast Leonato’s good virtues, Shakespeare introduces the character of Don John. His character would already be suspicious as ‘the bastard’ who would stereotypically be twisted and jealous of the lack of power and responsibility he would have in comparison to his brother the Prince. Shakespeare keeps his introduction completely separate to the rest of the characters confirming how he is different. His introduction is also used as a device by Shakespeare to shed light on his shady character revealing how he and his brother have just “reconciled”.
Shakespeare clears the stage giving the audience a chance to learn more about “Brave young Claudio”. Claudio and Benedick use this time to discuss love, Benedick reveals his cynical view on the matter, whereas Claudio reveals he is in love with Hero, and described her as “modest.” This being the quality that he finds attractive and therefore, once he thought lost, makes him fall out of love “the lady is disloyal”. Shakespeare repeats that Benedick is a “confirmed bachelor” and will stay so, so that he creates a more humorous and ironic situation for the audience when he does actually fall in love. “Shall I never see a bachelor of three score again?”
As Don Pedro enters the conversation he immediately queries what is going on, Shakespeare conveys the idea of hierarchy as his demands are met when Benedick tells him on his “allegiance” that Claudio is in love with Hero. Don Pedro describes he a being “very well worthy” referring to her sexual decency and her innocence. The fact that the prince says she is “very” and “well” worthy is used by Shakespeare to emphasis how highly she is thought upon. It is also important, as these are the very qualities that Don John aims to depict as corrupt in order to destroy their relationship.
Their talk of love pushes Benedick out of the scene and at this point it appears that he not only leaves the scene but also leaves the alliance of three. This is a device used by Shakespeare to leave room for the entry of Don john and the creation of a new alliance where Don John will be able to confirm the audience’s suspicions by acting the part of the serpent. Once Benedick has gone the talk of love also comes to a halt. Claudio uses his speech with Don Pedro to discuss marriage as a proposal of business as well as love. “Hath Leonato any son, my Lord” this is an interest in what material value he will gain from his marriage as part of his inheritance. This however would have been a typical question in accordance with the social and historical context of the play and it is doubtful that the audience would have paid any attention to it.
“Stories of the calumniation of a chaste women, as in the plot concerning Hero, are many and ancient”. However, Shakespeare’s version is particularly used to display the social and historical context of women, as shown throughout the conversation between Claudio and Don Pedro. There is no mention to whether Hero will agree to his marriage proposal; her acceptance is just taken for granted. This is a key element that represents how Hero is not believed when accused of being unfaithful, as her opinion is insignificant and her word counts for less than the word of a man.
As scene one ends it is obvious that Shakespeare has provided scene two as a direct contrast as it is less busy with only two characters. Shakespeare uses this scene to give the audience a breather and time to take in what has happened. Shakespeare echoes the element of speed (“busy time”) to emphasis that things could go amiss, as they are moving too fast, which could lead to misunderstandings. Shakespeare shows this come to pass, as they are hurrying to prepare for the nights festivities and the first major twist is brought into the play. Antonio informs his brother Leonato that his servant over heard Don Pedro that he is going to propose to Hero. Shakespeare uses this idea of how misreporting can cause chaos, a theme which is carried on throughout. The orchard and idea of fruitfulness and abundance are reiterated in the idea of marriage, showing the audience the future direction of the play. Shakespeare uses the device of overhearing to give the audience a chance to catch up and provides a brief reminder of the previous events.
Scene three is also a contrast to the previous scenes as there is a more sinister mood and Shakespeare uses this time to introduce the character of Don John in depth and set the tone of his character. He admits to being ‘a plain dealing villain’ which confirms his role as the serpent to the audience and showing that he has no intention of changing. The language used by Don John represents his dark and destructive nature. An example of this would be “model to build mischief on.” Building would normally be associated with helping things grow and becoming stronger, however, he contradicts its meaning as he uses building to demolish and destroy, love in particular. Once again Shakespeare uses this device to keep his character separate and effectively remind the audience of his intentions.
It is the same nature of darkness that is inflicted by Don John, onto the paths of Claudio and Don Pedro when he enters their alliance of three. Don John’s entrance also affects Claudio as Shakespeare uses it to outline his inexperience in love. The high lights of this point are the plans of Claudio to “shame” Hero at their wedding. Shakespeare employs this device not only to show Claudio’s immaturity, but to also outline the weakness in their relationship and his character. If he had really loved and trusted her as a person, he would not of judged her completely on the word of a man regarding her sexual decency. It is only when the time comes for the three to repent that Shakespeare separates the three, Claudio and Don Pedro ask for forgiveness and Don John does not. The Christian virtues are maintained and they are forgiven, whereas, Don John is to be punished, showing that those who do good will be rewarded and the “serpent” will be admonished.
In conclusion, I believe that Shakespeare opens the play with great success as he uses it to introduce characters in an appealing way and provide their background information making each character entertaining. It also provides a preliminary look into how the characters may turn out, along with gripping dilemmas and keeping the audience intrigued. These dilemmas are the foundation for all of the engaging twists in the rest of the play and the breaking and formation of relationships.