Explore the character of Benedick in Shakespeare’s ‘Much Ado About Nothing’.
Benedick is undoubtedly one of the most interesting and hilarious characters in the play. Termed the ‘jester’ by his love-hate interest Beatrice, he serves to entertain the audience while providing insight to his ‘rationalistic’ view on love.
Benedick’s sharp wip and unending stream of innuendoes never cease to amuse the audience. He enters the play and immediately starts a hilarious banter with Beatrice, calling her a ‘rare parrot-teacher’. To an Elizabethan audience, this would’ve been amusing- Benedick insinuates that Beatrice is too verbose for her own good- to the extent that she could teach parrots. He jokes that she’s always repeating herself, and that she’s the cause of all verbosity. However, his words are not purely for the humiliation of Beatrice or the entertainment of the audience. His words also reflect the dominance of men in the 17th Century. He calls Beatrice a ‘rare’ parrot teacher- her argumentative ways are not a common sight in that age. Benedick essentially says that she speaks too much for a woman, and her adamant refusal to adhere to social constrictions make her a ‘rare’ woman to come by. His jokes may entertain but they subtly portray the harsh reality of anti-feminism. They also reflect his fear- his fear of marriage and the unchaste woman. He calls Beatrice a parrot teacher, but Beatrice teaches him to reply in insults and banter. It’s as if he’s likening himself to a parrot, a bird; this hidden reference to cuckoldry reflects the prevailing fear of being made a cuckold- having an unfilial wife- depicts Benedick’s mistrust of women and a misogynistic society.
Benedick’s hidden mistrust of women and his repudiation of marriage makes him a realist- a pragmatic man. He does not trip over himself and fall head over heels in love like Claudio and Hero do. He does not spout elegant romantic words of poetry, but rather tells harsh cuckold jokes that display his aversion to love and romance. He says: “That a woman conceived […] but that I will have a reheat winded in my head, or hang my bugle i an invisible baldric […] I will live a bachelor.” (Act I Scene I) A reheat is a hunting horn- therefore he places horns on his own head, reflecting his fear of infidelity, bringing to light his patriarchal view that a woman’s role was to serve and remain loyal to her husband. By saying ‘hang his bugle in an invisible baldric’, he means that he will not hide his horn. this is a jeer at married men and how they have to hide their suffering: for a cuckold’s horns are the suffering of a man with an unfaithful wife. However, the bugle could also be interpreted as a phallic symbol and the baldric, a codpiece- which then means that Benedick refuses to hide his masculinity regardless of whether he is married or not, exhibiting his hegemonic masculinity and arrogance. He says that he will live a bachelor- denouncing notions of love.
Despite this, we see a drastic change in Benedick as we progress through the play. By Act 4, he is so utterly convinced that he is in love with Beatrice, he declarers his undying love for her: “I do love nothing in the world so well as you, is that not strange?” The audience would never have dreamt of this happening at the beginning of the play. Benedick finds it in himself to confess love- after so adamantly abusing it before! Love is the opposite of what he stood for, but now he is consumed by his love for Beatrice. This shows the audience how indecisive and flighty man is. But then of course, Benedick’s love is partly due to Don Pedro’s and Claudio’s deceit- perhaps he wouldn’t have fallen for Beatrice so completely if they hadn’t so grossly abused his views of love and deemed it arrogant. Perhaps he wouldn’t have confessed his love if the counts did not convince him that Beatrice was wholeheartedly in love with him. Nevertheless, Benedick does eventually alter his extreme views on love and accepts it as nature.
Benedick is a character that depicts the up and downs of love, while amusing everyone with his impressive wit. He is a very realistic man with both heartening characteristics and humanly shortcomings, making him a very endearing character in the play.