Act 1 scene 1 main purpose is to introduce the themes in the play, preparing the reader for the conflict between the contrasting outlooks of the characters. In the first scene we see the friendship groups between the characters also showing the potential ‘lovers’ from this initial description, Finding out who is friends with who can also give us explanations to who is going to defend each other and who may want to maliciously trick each other. Shakespeare also shows opposing traits between many characters, even between family members. Hero is polite, quiet, respectful, and gentle, whereas Beatrice is feisty, cynical, witty, and sharp. Similarly there is a contrast between Don John who has evil and deceptive intentions, and his opposite, Don Pedro, who is a loyal and noble person.
Don John ‘the bastard’ and his vile comrades contrast with Don Pedro the noble prince and his heroic friends. The difference in the brothers’ standing in society is mirrored in their personalities. In the first scene, we see an apparent reconciliation between Don John and Don Pedro but the jealous and malicious instincts of Don John can not hide themselves for too long “I can not hide what I am”, he confesses “I am a plain dealing villain”. It is ironic how frank Don John is about his character, as many of the protagonists deceive each other, and in Beatrice and Benedict’s case they trick even themselves into believing “I love none”. Deception is a recurrent theme, not only this play but also many of Shakespeare’s plays.
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Hero is a conventional, “modest young lady”, different in both appearance and personality to her cousin Beatrice. Hero conforms to the patriarchal society of Messina, obeying her father unquestioningly, and behaving demurely, like a woman ‘should’. Beatrice is older than Hero, yet unlike her cousin she is unwilling to conform. Feisty and assertive, Beatrice engages in intelligent wordplay, a ‘merry war’ with her male superior, Benedick, referring to him as “signor mountanto” a fencing term symbolic of the battle of words and wills the two share. Though their insults are biting, their ability to maintain such clever, interconnected sparring seems to illustrate the existence of a strong bond between them. The audience is prepared for the great contrasts in behaviour between the two women from the start of the play, and begins to expect a resolution involving the ‘taming’ of Beatrice. We can also assume by Benedick`s description of Beatrice that he does in fact find her more attractive then we first thought and he ‘accidently’ reveals he is attracted to Beatrice in comparison to that of Hero, she “exceeds in beauty”. This is also Benedick showing rudely how “I do not like (Hero)”.
Beatrice and Benedick are perhaps Shakespeare’s most famously witty characters; neither lets the other say anything without countering it with a pun or criticism. First impressions of Benedick are of loyalty to his friends, but also of arrogance and he sounds on the outset like a misogynist, proclaiming “I am loved of all ladies” but “truly I love none”. As the scene progresses we get small inclinations that maybe he does love someone, “her cousin exceed her as much in beauty”, showing he finds Beatrice attractive. He engages with Beatrice in a competition to outwit, outsmart, and out-insult the other. As with many of Shakespeare plays we can presume this ‘merry war’ is hiding their true feelings. From first impressions we see he is constantly performs for the benefit of others, and indulges in witty banter with many to express his feelings.
Claudio from the beginning seems deeply attracted to Hero, showing a romantic outlook with “soft and delicate desires”. Unfortunately, his fickle and suspicious nature makes him quick to believe evil rumours, and he is hasty to despair and take revenge. He appears to love Hero, but the opinion of others changes his mind so we have to question if this relationship is genuine. It is also strange for us to see his love so quickly in the first scene, as he first notices “the sweetest lady I ever looked upon”. Don Pedro insists on wooing Hero for Claudio himself, whilst masked, rather than allowing Claudio to profess his love to Hero first, “I will assume thy part in some disguise”: this is the first introduction to the recurrent theme of appearance and reality.
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