home contact

The Quarrel of Benedick and Beatrice

From A memorial volume to Shakespeare and Harvey . ed. by A. C. Judson. Austin: University Press.

On the average modern reader the quarrel of Benedick and Beatrice in Much Ado About Nothing, II, 1, makes no exceptional impression. It seems little more than a renewed attack in the war of wits between the two which the reader has been following up to this point. Beatrice is accused of borrowing her jests from A Hundred Merry Tales, and retaliates by comparing Benedick's wit to that of the "prince's jester."

Why is Benedick, who takes Beatrice's seemingly more bitter taunts in good part, roused to such wrath at this? The blow to his mere vanity as a wit does not seem to explain sufficiently the effect on him, nor does the view that the sparring of the two here simply brings to a climax the rising anger of Benedick. Such an interpretation is not true to the spirit of the play or to the emphasis laid on the passage in the development of Shakespeare's plot. For it is immediately after this — after Benedick in recounting the quarrel to Don Pedro has declared that he would not marry Beatrice "though she were endowed with all that Adam had left him before he transgressed" — that Don Pedro proposes what is characterized as "one of Hercules' labours," to make the two antagonists fall in love with each other.

The truth is that the quarrel has lost for modern readers the force of its meaning; its richness in suggestion for Renaissance readers and hearers has faded out. Beatrice's taunt is not a last straw for the already nettled Benedick, but a most outrageous insult.

In order to understand Benedick's feeling that Beatrice has been guilty of an unpardonable insult, one must understand the exceptional value set by the courtly classes of the Renaissance upon a wit that represented humanistic culture, and the absolute condemnation of certain types of jesting. At an early period in the Renaissance, humanists began to formulate a doctrine of true wit, or wit that belonged to the ideals of courtesy and consequently differentiated the man of true virtue or distinction from the vulgar. 1

Schoolboys as well as courtiers were trained in the types of jests appropriate to the man of culture. 2 Even rhetorics like Wilson's Arte of Rhetorique dealt with the matter as a phase of Renaissance education. Wilson classified types of jesting that were to be avoided, and distinguished "betwixt a common jester, and a pleasant wiseman."3 But to true or cultured wit the Renaissance gave the highest approval. Some early humanists like Sir Thomas More were esteemed as highly for their wit as for any other quality. The stress laid on wit by the courtesy books has led some students to find the source of Benedick and Beatrice in the greatest of the courtesy books, Il Cortegiano, as translated by Sir Thomas Hoby. 4

It is more probable, however, that Shakespeare was merely sharing the Renaissance passion for wit, and in portraying his witty characters like Biron and Rosaline, and Benedick and Beatrice reflected simply the witty conversation affected by English gallants and ladies at Elizabeth's court and among those who imitated the customs of the court. Lyly's Euphues and his plays, as well as other novels and plays of the last quarter of the sixteenth century, illustrate the vogue.

In Shakespeare's early comedies there is a great elaboration of the various types of wit current in the age, and his characters, along with those of his contemporaries in general, observe with a fair degree of consistency the laws of decorum in the use of types of wit and humorous language. We have the raillery and mockery of the courtly class; the plays upon words, antithetical retorts and logical fence; the hyperbole, the conceits, the far-fetched similes and metaphors of its love poetry. Nearest to wit of the courtly type and often not easily to be distinguished from it, is the wit of the page, with his perverse logic, his impudent mockery, and his shrewd waggishness. Dromio of Syracuse and Speed illustrate the type best in Shakespeare, though they have a stronger tinge of the clown than Lyly's pages.

More clownish still is the type of wit seen in such servants as Dromio of Ephesus and Launce, with their soliloquies and droll narratives interspersed with reports of conversations — characters akin in wit to the vices of the older drama. But to the Elizabethan the most degraded of all forms of wit arising from conscious effort was that of the professional fool, or jester, who in his worst form was known as the ale-house jester. Theoretically the wit of any of these less favored classes would have been disgraceful in a courtly person, marking him as an inferior in culture and social standing.5

In Elizabeth's court, where gallants and ladies constantly paraded their wit and even pages revealed the same passion, the professional jester and the pure simpleton do not seem to have found an important place. Their function had not altogether died out, however. Some fools were retained in noblemen's houses, 6 and the old jest books, whose tales were often grouped around the names of jesters of Henry VIII's court, were exceedingly popular among the common people. Some of these stories set forth the jests of people of rank, but all were condemned by the courtly and cultivated at the end of the sixteenth century. The accusation that her jests were stolen from A Hundred Merry Tales was in itself an insult that Beatrice was not slow to resent.

She repaid the insult with overflowing measure, however, when she not only called Benedick "a very dull fool" but added a turn that gave mortal offence. She described him unmistakably as the ale-house jester.

"Beatrice — Why, he is the prince's jester: a very dull fool: only his gift is in devising impossible slanders: none out libertines delight in him; and the commendation is not in his wit, but in his villany; for he both pleases men and angers them, and then they laugh at him and beat him. . . .
Benedick — When I know the gentleman, I'll tell him what you say.
Beatrice — Do, do: he'll but break a comparison or two on me; which, peradventure not marked or not laughed at, strikes him into melancholy; and then there's a partridge wing saved, for the fool will eat no supper that night."

The ale-house jester had been condemned earlier in the sixteenth century, as by Wilson in his Arte of Rhetorique, but by the end of the century he was one type of professional jester that was almost universally condemned and in the most indignant terms, particularly as one who misled young gentlemen, nobles, and princes. His jests were not mere second-hand tales and more or less stupid retorts; they were scurrilous, degraded, and vicious — "villany," as Beatrice declares. His attraction lay in the sharpness of his raillery and abuse, and his was a studied art to amuse young men to their own damage and to the profit of this new type of professional parasite. The most exhaustive picture of him in his most detestable phase is given by Jonson in Carlo Buffone of Every Man Out of His Humour. Carlo represents in his main traits the buffoon as condemned by Aristotle and the ale-house jester as condemned by Wilson and other humanists.

Jonson's character apparently reflects, also, the most famous of the actual jesters representing the type at the end of the sixteenth century, Charles Chester. All the vices ascribed to Benedick as the "prince's jester" are scathingly rebuked in the figure of Carlo. Though less complete than Jonson's, there are also a number of illustrations of the type before Shakespeare. Nashe's picture of Chester in Pierce Pennilesse illustrates all the points of Beatrice's sketch, the slanders of the jester, the prince's laughing at his scurrility and yet beating him in anger, the "breaking of a comparison" as a feature of his art. Nashe condemns not only the jester but the keeper as well:

"It is a disparagement to those that haue any true sparke of Gentilitie, to be noted of the whole world so to delight in detracting, that they should keepe a venemous toothd Cur, and feed him with the crums that fall from their table, to do nothing but bite euery one by the shins that passe by. If they will needes be merry, let them haue a foole and not a knaue to disport them, and seeke some other to bestow their almes on, than such an impudent begger." 7

Shakespeare himself had used the type before Much Ado. When in Henry IV he represented the youth of Henry V, who according to old stories was given to wild company, he changed the picture of a young prince who was merely an associate of robbers in The Famous Victories of Henry V into that of a young prince misled by an ale-house jester. The age readily understood such an association, for men were seeing it and condemning it, as I have pointed out.

Shakespeare does not, however, make the prince who developed into his ideal king the patron of a mere scurrilous, railing parasite. The jester who exercises his wit to procure meals from Prince Hal is made the most subtle and genial humorist of all literature. But the essential basis of the sketch must not be forgotten. Falstaff gets his meals by his jesting; his jesting is frequently raillery and abuse; and his abuse of the Prince is rank enough to justify Hal, if he had been so disposed in beating him as other ale-house parasites are represented as being beaten when they went too far with their patrons. Further, a large amount of Falstaff's wit is in the nature of the "absurd comparisons" which are stressed so fully by Nashe and Jonson, and are imputed to Benedick by Beatrice.

It is worth noting that in spite of the sharp distinctions drawn between true wit and unworthy railing and in spite of the great pride in wit revealed among the cultured like Benedick and Beatrice in the Renaissance, both Benedick and Beatrice betray an unusual sensitiveness to the charge of grossness in wit.

Mary Lamb remarks in regard to Benedick, "There is nothing that great wits so much dread as the imputation of buffoonery, because the charge comes sometimes a little too near the truth." Benedick in reflecting on Beatrice's charges says, "The prince's fool! Ha? It may be I go under that title because I am merry." But the hesitation about the worthiness of his wit is only momentary; he immediately ascribes such an estimate to the "base, though bitter, disposition of Beatrice," and expresses afterwards nothing but indignation at the charges brought against him as a wit. Beatrice is forced to hear a similar estimate of her wit, though she is accused merely of pride and scorn, not of "villany."

when Hero and Ursula are baiting her in III, 1, knowing that she overhears, her raillery is condemned, and with a kind of poetic justice she is accused of transforming men with the absurd comparisons that make up a part of her picture of Benedick as an ale-house jester.
"Why, you speak truth. I never yet saw man.
How wise, how noble, young, how rarely featured.
But she would spell him backward: if fair-faced,
She would swear the gentleman should be her sister;
If black, why, Nature, drawing of an antique.
Made a foul blot; if tall, a lance ill-headed;
If low, an agate very vilely cut;
If speaking, why a vane blown with all winds;
If silent, why, a block moved with none.
So turns she every man the wrong side out
And never gives to truth and virtue that
Which simpleness and merit purchaseth."
In answer to this indictment Beatrice soliloquizes,

"What fire is in mine ears? Can this be true?
Stand I condemn 'd for pride and scorn so much?
Comtempt, farewell! and maiden pride, adieu!
No glory lives behind the back of such."

As a matter of fact, though courtly wit was sharply differentiated from all that savored of scurrility and clownishness, much of the wit of Lyly's courtly characters and of Shakespeare's in the plays up to and including Much Ado is of the railing and personal type. The conventional treatment of heroines in Italian novelle and in the fiction of all Elizabeth's reign presents them as unapproachable and scornful of all wooers, and their scorn is best expressed in their wit. The convention is conspicuous in Love's Labour's Lost. But, at the end of the century, new developments in the idea of what was allowable in wit are very clear. Not only does the satire on the absurd similes or comparisons that appear in the accounts of Chester, of Falstaff, and of Carlo Buffone, and in the accusations against Benedick and Beatrice seem to have received fresh emphasis, 8 but the scorn and pride of the unapproachable court lady was also going out of fashion.

When Beatrice is being lectured into love, Ursula remarks,

"Sure, sure, such carping is not commendable,"

and Hero replies,

"No, not to be so odd and from all fashions
As Beatrice is, cannot be commendable."

Shakespeare has expressed here the verdict around 1600 on the disdainful type of heroine. The words are for the moment's effect on Beatrice, and cannot represent any true estimate of her, for she is infinitely more complex and more witty than the sketch of Hero and Ursula shows her. Nevertheless, she is sufficiently akin to the type condemned by her two companions to make their verdict telling. In the year in which Much Ado probably appeared, 1599, Jonson, clearly glancing at the type as portrayed in Euphues, satirized in Saviolina of Every Man Out of His Humour the pert and caustic lady of wit as shallow and out of fashion among the courtly. Rosaline of Love's Labour's Lost is Shakespeare's first essay in the type.

In Beatrice he has furnished the finest development of the conception; but even in Much Ado he has brought to light the essential weakness of such an ideal of wit, and I think it can be said that he never again attempted to portray the type. Perhaps, indeed, the use in Much Ado of a type already going out of fashion may have been due to the fact that Shakespeare was here revising an old play, possibly the Love's Labour's Won, which has been conjecturally identified with an early version of Much Ado.


1. Cf. Burckhardt, Renaissance in Italy, translated by Middlemore, 1914, pp. 154 ff.

2. Cf. Erasmus, Colloquies. "The Religious Treat" and "The Fabulous Feast"; and Castiglione, Il Cortegiamo, translated by Hoby, pp. 152 ff.

3. Mair's edition, pp. 137-139.

4. Cf. Sir Walter Raleigh's introduction to the edition of The Courtier in the Tudor Translations, and Miss M. A. Scott in Modern Lang. Publications, XVI (1901), pp. 489-502.

5. In Love's Labour's Lost, the play that best illustrates courtly wit before Much Ado, comparison of the types is invited in the page Moth and even in Costard, who is not always the pure clown. In Much Ado Shakespeare sets over against courtly wit the humor of the pure clown, and attains one of his most striking contrasts. In opposition to the wit of conscious effort is the unconscious blundering of the clown with his stupidity in -the pretentious use of words and ideas. The most conventionally stupid clown was the constable. In him, as in his wits, Shakespeare was following the convention of the age. The constable appeared in plays like Endimion and Leir before the day of Dogberry and Verges. The "Stage-keeper" in the Induction of Jonson's Bartholomew Fair, picturing Tarleton as acting at the Fair in a role appropriate to him, with another actor playing the rogue, declares that at the end you would have seen "a substantial watch to have stolen in upon them, and taken them away, with mistaking words, as the fashion is in the stage-practice."

6. Cf. Armins' Nest of Ninnies for an account of a number of such fools. Beatrice in I, 1, refers to her uncle's fool.

7. Works, edited by McKerrow, Vol. I, p. 191.

8. Cf. Hart, Works of Ben Jonson, Vol. 1, pp. xxxvi ff., and Baskervill, English Elements in Jonson's Early Comedy, pp. 174-177.

How to Cite this Article

Baskervill, Charles. The Quarrel of Benedick and Beatrice. In A memorial volume to Shakespeare and Harvey . ed. by A. C. Judson. Austin: University Press, 1917.

Related Articles

 The Shakespeare Sisterhood: Beatrice
 Much Ado About Nothing: Plot Summary
 Why Shakespeare is so Important
 Elements of Shakespearean Comedy
 Types of Shakespearean Comedy
 Shakespeare's Second Period: Exploring Much Ado About Nothing, Twelfth Night, As You Like It, The Merchant of Venice, Romeo and Juliet and the Histories
 Exploring the Nature of Shakespearean Comedy

 Words Shakespeare Invented
 Shakespeare's Language
 Shakespeare's Metaphors and Similes

 Shakespeare's Reputation in Elizabethan England
 Shakespeare's Impact on Other Writers
 Why Study Shakespeare?
 Quotations About William Shakespeare