Leonato, Antonio, Beatrice, Hero, and attendants have finished dinner and are preparing for the postprandial (= after a meal) masquerade ball.
Leonato notes that the sour Don John wasn’t at dinner, and Beatrice hijacks the conversation, as usual, to talk about Benedick, because she really, really doesn’t care about him – and a good way to show it is to talk about him all the time.
Beatrice says if a man could be halfway between Don John’s quietness and Benedick’s constant chatter, and rich, and handsome, he could have any woman in the world.
The subject then becomes whether Beatrice will ever get a man, because she’s saucy.
Beatrice points out that any man God would send her might as well come with his pair of cuckold’s horns (i.e., a whip) attached. Anyway, she says she’s too picky to get a man: she thinks men with beards are too old and itchy, and men without beards might as well dress up in her women’s clothes.
Beatrice says she isn’t too bothered by being single. Her uncle, Leonato, then unhelpfully adds that perhaps she’ll go to hell (which was rumored to be the destination for old maids).
Beatrice says the devil, who wears horns like a cuckold, would be sure to send her up to heaven once she got to hell. When she gets to heaven, Beatrice is sure she’ll be directed up to where all the bachelors (a gender neutral term in Shakespeare’s day) hang out.
This anti-marriage banter goes on for a while, when talk finally turns to Hero’s impending marriage.
Leonato still thinks that Don Pedro, and not Claudio, will be the one to try and court Hero, because of the (mis)information he got from Antonio’s servant. It’s clear that Leonato has already given Hero a good talking to about what her answer should be if Don Pedro proposes marriage to her.
Beatrice adds the helpful advice that "wooing, wedding, and repenting" correspond to three different kinds of dances. Wooing is like a Scotch jig – fast and fun. The process of wedding is a slow, stately affair, and the state of being married requires the liveliest dance of all, as one regrets the decision to marry and backtracks on fast legs all the way into the grave.
The masked party goers enter and break up the talk about Hero’s marriage. (You should note everyone except Hero has added their two cents about the whole affair.)
Everyone breaks off into pairs, with the men masked and the women guessing at each other's identities.
A disguised Don Pedro pairs with Hero, flirtatiously talking of love.
Then Borachio (attendant to Don John) snuggles up to Margaret (Hero’s maid).
Margaret says to Borachio that one of her chief failings is that she says her prayers aloud. Borachio basically says, "The better to answer your prayers, my dear." Their conversation tends toward the raunchy side.
Ursula (an attendant of Hero’s) is paired off with the playful Antonio (Hero’s uncle). This warm-your-cockles moment is interrupted by Benedick and Beatrice, who have (here’s a shocker) been paired together.
It seems Beatrice's mystery partner has been talking to her about some not-so-flattering claims he’s heard about her.
Beatrice’s partner won’t reveal who he is, so she launches into her usual topic of conversation: "let’s talk about Benedick." She gives her partner her version of who Benedick is, calling him the "prince’s jester," or a common court fool.
Beatrice says only in truly awful people enjoy Benedick's company. Furthermore, men take pleasure and anger in his jests, sometimes laughing, sometimes beating him.
Still, Beatrice says she wishes she had been dancing with Benedick. Finally, she says if her partner tells Benedick anything she’s said, Benedick will make a joke out of it. She makes one last jab at Benedick, saying that he's an attention monger – he needs people to laughs at his jokes.
After a bit of dancing, we’re spared any more thinly-veiled love talk by Beatrice about Benedick. Instead, we get to witness Don John’s villainy.
Don John and his fellow villains recognize Claudio by the way he carries himself, and saunter over to him, ready to spill poison in his ear.
The men approach, knowing full well that the disguised man is Claudio, but asking coyly if he’s Benedick.
Claudio wanders into the trap, declares himself to be Benedick, and then hears the awful suggestion from Don John that Don Pedro is actually in love with Hero.
In fact, Don John says he’s heard Don Pedro swear his affection for the girl, and his intention to marry her that very night. (Lies and slander.) He leaves Claudio, saying that as a good friend, "Benedick" should dissuade Don Pedro from his wooing Hero.
Claudio trusts Don John’s villainy, and believes that Don Pedro is courting Hero for himself.
Claudio says he should’ve known friendship couldn’t withstand love. He would’ve talked to Hero himself, but he hadn’t suspected Don Pedro. He admits he’ll suffer for his mistake.
Thus Claudio says goodbye to Hero, thinking he’s lost her to Don Pedro. Also, he’s not willing to fight for his love, because he’s lame.
Benedick enters with ample salt to rub in young Claudio’s new wound. He teases that Claudio will have to wear a garland of willow (representing unrequited love) because Don Pedro has stolen away Hero.
Claudio, heartbroken, has no patience to jest with Benedick, and quickly leaves.
Next we find out that Beatrice and Benedick should probably get along very well, as they share a common interest: thinking and talking about Benedick.
Benedick rankles at the tongue-lashing he received from Beatrice while he was her disguised dance partner. He decides he brings this kind of censure on himself, as he probably isn’t taken too seriously because he acts so silly all the time. Still, this is only Beatrice’s opinion, and he reasons it might not be shared by the whole world.
Don Pedro breaks up Benedick’s intimate thoughts about himself.
Don Pedro is looking for Claudio, and has found Benedick instead. Benedick explains that Claudio mourns because Don Pedro seems to have stolen his Hero.
Don Pedro, who’s more sensible than the whole lot of idiots, says he was simply going through with the plan, and that he has secured Hero for Claudio.
With that matter cleared up, there’s some more patter about how much Beatrice and Benedick hate each other, and how Benedick wouldn’t marry the girl if she were Eve before the Fall. With Beatrice on earth, he says, hell seems a sanctuary. (Ouch.)
Just then Beatrice approaches with Claudio, Leonato, and Hero. Benedick begs to be excused. He’d rather bring back a toothpick from the farthest corner of Asia than deal with Beatrice.
Getting no sympathy from Don Pedro, Benedick rushes off.
Don Pedro notes his hasty departure, and Beatrice once again alludes to some relationship it seems they had (and lost) in the past.
All attention then turns to Claudio, who is sulking around looking generally morose, despite claiming to be neither sad nor sick.
Beatrice teases that he looks civil as an orange (punning on the fact that oranges from Seville, which sounds like "civil," were rather bitter. Also, orange is close to yellow, and yellow was a color associated with jealousy. That’s a lot to put into a pun, we know.)
Claudio won’t confess what’s wrong, so Don Pedro announces he has wooed Hero, but wooed her in Claudio’s name.
Good news! Hero has accepted Claudio, Leonato has agreed to the marriage, and now they just need to call a wedding planner and get registered at Bed Bath and Beyond.
Claudio claims he’s struck dumb by his happiness, and Hero is quiet too, so naturally they move on to making out – a good problem-solver when young couples actually have nothing to talk about.
Beatrice, who encourages all the kissing, is applauded by Don Pedro, who notes that she’s rather merry for being an embittered old maid.
Don Pedro says he could get Beatrice a husband if she wanted one.
Beatrice responds that she quite likes the children of Don Pedro’s father. She inquires whether Don Pedro’s father maybe has any other sons. We call this leading Don Pedro on.
Don Pedro takes the bait, and basically says, "Well…you could marry me…" and Beatrice is all, "No thanks! Bye!"
Actually Beatrice sticks around for a bit to say that she’s too full of silliness to marry someone as serious and lovely as Don Pedro. So she puts him down easy.
Don Pedro says he wouldn’t have Beatrice any other way, as she’s best when she’s silly. He says she must’ve been born during a merry hour.
Beatrice counters that her mother actually cried as she was giving birth to her, but a star danced, and then Beatrice was born.
Beatrice is sent off by Leonato to tend to some woman-stuff.
Leonato and Don Pedro chat about how Beatrice is a wonderful, warm girl, though she mocks all of her suitors into oblivion, and it seems she will never marry.
Don Pedro wonders what man could handle Beatrice’s wit, and declares then and there that Benedick should marry Beatrice (and that the world is round, and night comes after day, and Don Pedro is Conductor of the Obvious Train).
Don Pedro asks when Claudio means to marry Hero, and Claudio essentially replies: "Tomorrow isn’t even soon enough."
Leonato tells Claudio to hold his horses. The wedding will be in a week, and even that’s not enough time for Leonato to properly interrogate Claudio, but so be it.
Don Pedro, ever the peacemaker, says the week will go by quickly because they’ll all be having so much fun with a new little scheme.
He knows how to work on Benedick, and can teach the girls how to work on Beatrice. All in all, Don Pedro plans to get Benedick and Beatrice to fall in love, and he'd appreciate a little help from everyone.
Leonato, Claudio, and Hero agree to manipulate and deceive their respective friends (Benedick or Beatrice) into falling in love with each other.