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Don Pedro, Don John, Leonato, Benedick, Claudio, Hero, Beatrice, the Friar Francis, and all their attendants are gathered at a church to watch Claudio and Hero get married.
Leonato recommends they get down to business, and the Friar gets off to a false start when he asks if Claudio has come to marry the lady.
Claudio says, "No."
Everyone ignores this little outburst, but Claudio finally reveals everything. He asks if Leonato is happy to give away his daughter, who is a precious gift. "No worries," Claudio basically says, "you don’t have to give her away because I won’t take her, because she’s a whore."
Hero blushes, naturally, as she is very chaste. Claudio says she blushes from guiltiness, not from modesty.
Leonato is taken aback by the accusation that his daughter is an "approved wanton" (meaning a confirmed adulteress). Leonato asks if Claudio is referring to some effort he might’ve made to take Hero’s virginity before their wedding day.
Claudio cuts him off. He knows Leonato will try to say that Hero gave it up before she was formally married to Claudio, so she was only sinning against her husband-to-be.
Claudio says this is all irrelevant anyway, as he didn’t try anything on Hero that a brother wouldn’t try with a sister. In other words, he was being patient and not trying to sleep with Hero before their wedding.
Hero tries to stand up for herself, asking if she ever seemed less than modest to Claudio.
Claudio says that’s the whole point; she’s not what she seems, and she’s actually an animal full of savage sensuality.
Leonato appeals to Don Pedro, asking if he has anything to say about this madness. Don Pedro says he doesn’t have anything to say—he’s actually dishonored himself by linking his friend, Claudio, to this ‘round the way wanton.
Everyone’s shocked, slander’s being thrown left and right, and Benedick finally pipes up, saying he doesn’t think this is how weddings are usually supposed to go.
The madness continues for a while, and Hero asks who could possibly stain her name. Claudio points out she actually stained her own name. Then he asks who it was that Hero was talking to out of her window between midnight and one last night.
Hero insists she wasn’t talking to anyone.
Don Pedro replies that he, Don John, and Claudio clearly witnessed some man "talking" with Hero at her window last night. The man was kind enough to confess the thousand times that he and Hero had "vile encounters" before that. We don’t think he was talking about a friendly game of cribbage.
Before anyone can respond, Don John chimes in that language is too modest for them to utter what they heard. Instead, he’s just sorry that Hero is such a misguided young girl.
Claudio, not to lose his Mr. Melodrama title, laments that Hero would’ve been a great girl if her heart had been as pure as her outward appearance. Instead, she’s sleazy, and he’s out of here. Furthermore, he’ll now suspect all beautiful things to be faithless. She’s ruined love for him forever!
Leonato asks if anyone has a knife so he can kill himself.
Beatrice is the only one that thinks this whole affair is bogus.
Don Pedro, Don John, and Claudio exit while everyone else is tending to the fainting, slandered girl, Hero.
Beatrice worries that Hero is dead, and Leonato’s like, "Awesome, being dead would be a good way to hide her shame."
Leonato laments that he had only one child, and that Hero was his daughter at all, as he used to be so proud and full of love for her. If she had been some beggar child who had shown up at his gates, then he could write off this whole affair as one of the natural failings of the morally degenerate poor.
Benedick, witnessing all of this, is speechless. Beatrice, however, knows that her cousin is the victim of a smear campaign.
Benedick asks if Beatrice slept with Hero in bed last night. Though Beatrice admits she didn’t sleep in Hero’s bed last night, she had slept with Hero for all of last year (so presumably she'd know if Borachio was in bed).
Leonato takes Beatrice’s absence last night as confirmation that the accusations against Hero are true. He is certain that Don Pedro, Don John, and Claudio wouldn’t lie, so he accepts their word above everything he knows about his daughter. Leonato decides Hero should be left alone to die.
Friar Francis perks up, and says he’s been silent too long about this madness. The Friar reflects on all of the goodness he’s noted in Hero. The good fire in her eye is evidence enough for him to believe that Don Pedro and Don John were wrong in accusing the girl. He’s willing to bet his friarhood that Hero is innocent.
The Friar then questions Hero about what man she’s accused of seeing. Hero points out that she wouldn’t know who the fellow is, because no such man exists. If anyone can prove that she entertained a man at improper hours, she’s willing to be tortured.
Benedick points out that of the accusers, Don Pedro and Claudio, are honorable men. If the two of them were misled, they were misled by Don John, who delights in mischief.
Hearing this, Leonato becomes as worked up about Hero’s accusers as he was about Hero just five seconds ago. Leonato declares that if Hero’s honor has been wrongly tarnished, even though he’s old, he’ll make her accusers pay.
Friar Francis hatches a devious plan that will turn the whole course of the play.
The Friar notes that Don Pedro, Don John, and Claudio left the church while Hero was believed to be dead. They’ll all pretend that Hero is dead. The family should go ahead with all the mourning rituals as if Hero had died, even going so far as to have her buried in the family tomb.
Leonato wonders what the this "she’s really dead" ruse is going to accomplish.
The Friar says that news of Hero’s death will help change the public’s feeling. Once everyone hears how quickly the girl died after being accused, they’ll all lament and pity her (because only an innocent girl would die after an accusation like that).
After all, the Friar says, people don’t know what they’ve got ‘til it’s gone; they’ll value Hero more once they think she’s dead.
The Friar is sure that once Claudio discovers that his accusation caused Hero’s death, he’ll be moved to remember her sweet life, and not dwell on thoughts of her as a scandalous adulteress. The Friar insists that if Claudio really loved Hero, he’ll have no choice but to mourn her death and wish he hadn’t ever accused her.
Once they get the plan rolling, the Friar is sure the truth will shake out somehow, and Hero’s name will be cleared. If her innocence isn’t proven, worst case scenario is that she gets cloistered somewhere as a nun.
Benedick agrees to go along with the plan even though his allegiance and friendship belong to Claudio and Don Pedro.
Leonato will also participate because he’s too moved by grief to suggest another plan.
Either way, the Friar is convinced that only a cockamamie scheme can resolve this cockamamie situation.
Everyone except Benedick and Beatrice leave the church. It’s a totally inappropriate time for them to declare their love considering that everyone’s life was just ruined, but Benedick and Beatrice do have a habit of making everything about themselves sometimes.
Benedick approaches Beatrice, who's clearly been crying, and assures her that he considers Hero to be wrongly accused. He asks whether there’s any way he could show his friendship to Beatrice.
The conversation veers in the direction of Beatrice needing a man to avenge Hero, and Benedick is a man. Also, Benedick kind of blurts out that he loves Beatrice, which he admits is strange.
Beatrice is a bit shocked, and she quibbles in her reply, but she says she loves him too. They go on in some not-so-witty back and forth (because nothing in this play makes people boring like the possibility of marriage).
Benedick vows he’d do anything for Beatrice’s love. Beatrice says she actually does need something, and that’s for someone to kill Claudio. Benedick backtracks. He'll do anything for love, but he won't do that.
Beatrice declares his love is poor indeed, if he’s not willing to kill her enemy who purposefully waited to denounce Hero until he was in front of the crowd gathered to see the girl married.
Beatrice goes on here, and wishes she were a man, because then she could eat Claudio’s heart in the marketplace. Um.
Beatrice is stricken. Based on Benedick’s hesitation to kill Claudio, she vents that manhood nowadays seems to be more about polite fripperies than action and bravery.
Benedick doesn’t give in to Beatrice’s melodrama until she announces that she’ll die of grieving.
Benedick promises he’ll challenge Claudio to a duel, declaring that Claudio will pay dearly for his wrong against Hero.
Before departing to spread the rumor of Hero’s death, he kisses Beatrice’s hand.