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Leonato, the governor of Messina, is hanging around his house with his daughter, Hero and his niece, Beatrice.
Leonato chats with a messenger about some news: Don Pedro, the Prince of Arragon and friend of Leonato, has just finished up some battling and is on his way to stay at Leonato’s house this very evening.
Leonato learns the battle wasn’t terribly bloody, but it did give one young man a chance to distinguish himself as valiant beyond his years.
The messenger says he’s already delivered honors to the valiant young man, who then wept all over the place like a not-so-mature young man. Leonato very nicely says it’s better to weep from joy than to joy over weeping.
Beatrice, Leonato’s niece, then inquires after a certain Signior Mountanto, better known as Benedick.
Beatrice gives us a bit of a veiled back-story: she claims Benedick came to Messina and challenged Cupid to an archery contest (maybe meaning that Benedick claimed to be immune to Cupid’s arrows, and thus immune to love).
Beatrice goes on to say that "her uncle’s fool" took on Benedick’s challenge in place of Cupid. Beatrice doesn’t say how that challenge ended up, but we have gotten some other valuable information here. "My uncle’s fool" might refer to a court jester, but is more likely to refer to Beatrice herself.
Beatrice is possibly alluding to some previous relationship she and Benedick had that clearly didn’t work out, since both of them are so hell-bent on never being in love.
There’s some more bantering at poor Benedick’s expense, and Leonato makes clear that the war of wits between Beatrice and Benedick is an ongoing battle.
Beatrice then turns his attention to the fact that Benedick is prone to having a new best friend in every one of his endeavors. She wonders who the poor dude is that’s been taken into Benedick’s confidence this time.
It turns out to be Claudio, the young man who recently distinguished himself in battle. Beatrice jokes that catching Benedick is like catching a disease.
Just then, Don Pedro, Prince of Arragon, enters with Claudio, Benedick, an attendant named Balthasar, and Don Pedro’s illegitimate brother, Don John.
Don Pedro and Leonato banter and are generally happy to see each other, which is more than we can say for Beatrice and Benedick.
Benedick declares all ladies love him (except Beatrice) and sadly, he loves no ladies.
Beatrice thinks his lack of love is God’s gift to women, and she declares that, like Benedick, she has no intention of ever falling in love.
You’d think that was settled, but Beatrice isn’t done yet. As Benedick gracelessly drops out of the verbal sparring, Beatrice declares he’s played a jade’s trick (referring to the habit of old horses, called jades, to drop out of races before reaching the finish line). Beatrice declares she’s not surprised by his lame falling off, as she’s known him a while. (Also, while jade trick refers to his bowing out of this conversation, it might also apply to the relationship Benedick seems to have dropped out of with Beatrice earlier. So there’s big time tension.)
Don Pedro announces that Leonato has invited him, Claudio, and Benedick to stay with Leonato for at least a month, which will be ample time for drama to develop.
Leonato also personally welcomes Don John, who seems to have recently reconciled with his brother Don Pedro.
Benedick is left alone with Claudio as the others wander off, led by Leonato and Don Pedro.
The young Claudio reveals that he’s been smitten by Leonato’s daughter, Hero. Benedick, ever full of taunts, wonders that Claudio could be so bent on marriage, especially as Benedick thinks Hero’s cousin, Beatrice, is wading around in the more attractive end of the gene pool.
Don Pedro then returns, wondering what secret Claudio and Benedick have been sharing.
Benedick, entrusted with the knowledge of Claudio’s secret crush, immediately reveals to Don Pedro that Claudio has fallen for the Hero. Benedick thinks Hero is short.
Don Pedro thinks Claudio's interest in Hero is wonderful news, but Benedick takes the love-declaration as another chance to rail on women.
Benedick says he’s grateful to his mother for giving birth to him and raising him. Since he’s not a complete woman-hater, he’d never want to hurt a woman by distrusting her. Therefore he’ll never get into a relationship with a women where trust is required (i.e., marriage).
Don Pedro is certain that before he dies, Benedick will be pale with love, but Benedick quibbles. He says he’ll be made pale by anger, sickness, or hunger, but never by love.
In Shakespeare’s day, people thought that sighs of love made a person lose blood, while alcohol increased the blood supply. Benedick says if he should ever lose more blood from love than he could get again by drinking, then Don Pedro can poke out his eyes with a lovesick poet’s pen and hang him up as a blind Cupid sign outside of a brothel (these often used the symbol of a blind Cupid as advertisement).
Benedick goes on some more about how he’ll never wear cuckold’s horns. (Cuckolds are men whose wives ran around with other men, and generally abused their husbands. They were symbolized by wearing horns, and while this doesn’t make a lot of sense in the modern day, it was the closest thing those guys had to being whipped.)
Don Pedro promises Benedick will eat his words and fall in love after all, unless Cupid is too busy in Venice. (Venetians were known to love visiting brothels.)
Don Pedro dismisses the prattling Benedick.
This leaves Claudio to speak earnestly with Don Pedro, who, unlike Benedick, doesn’t take Claudio’s romance as a good occasion to mock and belittle him.
Claudio seems nervous about revealing his love to Hero, but Don Pedro can help him out here. Claudio begins to reveal his history with the girl.
Claudio admits he noticed Hero before he went off to war, but at the time, the upcoming battle was a higher priority than love. Now that he’s back, thoughts of love have replaced his bloodlust.
Still, Claudio worries that if he begins to woo her, it will seem like he fell in love too quickly and she might not take him seriously.
Don Pedro agrees to help Claudio secure his fast-action love. He’ll let Hero and Leonato know about Claudio’s affections, but it has to be revealed in an unnecessarily complicated way that’s prone to disaster... or else this wouldn't be a Shakespeare comedy.
There’s a masquerade ball planned for that very night, and Don Pedro plans to wear a disguise and woo Hero, pretending to be Claudio. Don Pedro promises his tale of love will be so wonderful and compelling that Hero won’t have a choice but to fall in love. Clearly, this is a fool-proof plan.
Don Pedro will also let Leonato know about Claudio’s intentions to marry Hero.
All Claudio’s really got to do is… absolutely nothing.
Don Pedro promises Claudio will have Hero (and this plot promises to be interesting).