BEATRICE I pray you, is Signior Mountanto returned from the wars or no? (1.1.30-31)
Through the play we get used to Beatrice talking with Benedick in a less-than-straightforward way. In this line, she uses a name for Benedick that no one knows. Also, this is Beatrice’s first line in the play—it’s significant that her first words are a reference to Benedick.
DON JOHN I thank you. I am not of many words, but I thank you. (1.1.154-155)
Don John doesn’t use language as deftly or frequently as the other characters. He speaks little, and speaks straight. You might argue that Don John is a dangerous character because he’s guarded with his words.
All of the other main characters say an awful lot (even if their meanings are a little veiled). Don John, by not saying much, shows that he is concealing something, and is not to be trusted. It’s the "sticks and stones" notion—words can be bandied about easily, and can be forgiven easily too. Don John, however, seems to prefer real harm over intangible words.
BENEDICK I would my horse had the speed of your tongue, and so good a continuer, but keep your way, i' God's name, I have done. BEATRICE You always end with a jade's trick. I know you of old. (1.1.139-143)
Benedick drops out of the argument because he can’t keep up with Beatrice. The two characters use their language as weapons, but never seem to be able to end or resolve their fights.
CLAUDIO Benedick, didst thou note the daughter of Signior Leonato? BENEDICK I noted her not, but I looked on her. (1.1.158-160)
This is the first of many usages of the word "noting" in the play; Benedick teases that he looked on the girl, but she was unremarkable, so he took no particular notice of her. Language is precise here, and communicates that Benedick has some disdain (maybe not particularly for Hero, but for taking note of women).
BENEDICK I have almost matter enough in me for such an embassage, and so I commit you—
CLAUDIO To the tuition of God. From my house, if I had it—
PEDRO The sixth of July. Your loving friend, Benedick. BENEDICK Nay, mock not, mock not. The body of your discourse is sometime guarded with fragments, and the guards are but slightly basted on neither. Ere you flout old ends any further, examine your conscience. And so I leave you. (1.1.273-283)
This is important—Benedick is silly an awful lot, but he's aware that the silliness of his language is often just a ruse to hide his more serious thoughts. He’s not a shallow jester, but more of a John Oliver type. Being funny is both his armor and weaponry.
Act I, Scene ii
ANTONIO The Prince and Count Claudio, walking in a thick-pleached alley in mine orchard, were thus much overheard by a man of mine: the Prince discovered to Claudio that he loved my niece your daughter and meant to acknowledge it this night in a dance, and if he found her accordant, he meant to take the present time by the top and instantly break with you of it. LEONATO Hath the fellow any wit that told you this? (1.2.9-17)
The wires are all crossed here – Antonio’s man has misheard or misreported this news. This mishearing turns out to be a minor hiccup compared the graver, and more deliberate "misnotings" in the play. However, it’s still significant because it sets the tone for mishearing, misreporting, and generally bad communication to be one of the play’s main themes.
Act II, Scene i
BENEDICK She told me, not thinking I had been myself, that I was the Prince's jester, that I was duller than a great thaw, huddling jest upon jest with such impossible conveyance upon me that I stood like a man at a mark with a whole army shooting at me. She speaks poniards, and every word stabs. If her breath were as terrible as her terminations, there were no living near her; she would infect to the North Star. (2.1.239-247)
Benedick is undone by Beatrice’s quick tongue before he’s undone by his love for her. (Or maybe it’s her quick tongue that makes him love her.)
Act II, Scene iii
BENEDICK Ha! 'Against my will I am sent to bid you come in to dinner.' There's a double meaning in that. 'I took no more pains for those thanks than you took pains to thank me.' That's as much as to say 'Any pains that I take for you is as easy as thanks.' If I do not take pity of her, I am a villain; if I do not love her, I am a Jew. I will go get her picture. (2.3.259-265)
Benedick convinces himself that there’s underlying romantic meaning in Beatrice’s words, even when that’s obviously not the case. Love has the power to make us see what we want in conversation.
Act III, Scene i
HERO Good Margaret, run thee to the parlor. There shalt thou find my cousin Beatrice Proposing with the prince and Claudio. Whisper her ear and tell her I and Ursula Walk in the orchard and our whole discourse Is all of her. Say that thou overheardst us, And bid her steal into the pleachèd bower Where honeysuckles ripened by the sun Forbid the sun to enter, like favorites Made proud by princes, that advance their pride Against that power that bred it. There will she hide her To listen our purpose. This is thy office. Bear thee well in it and, leave us alone. (3.1.1-14)
Hero’s descriptive language here is some of the only flowery stuff in the play. From this passage we see that Hero’s ability in language isn’t clever humor, but the ability to find beauty. Just as Beatrice and Benedick’s language reflects their sharp nature, Hero’s beautiful language reflects her sweetness and gentleness.
Act III, Scene iii
DOGBERRY Come hither, neighbor Seacoal. [Seacoal steps forward.] God hath blessed you with a good name. To be a well-favored man is the gift of fortune, but to write and read comes by nature. SEACOAL Both which, master constable—
DOGBERRY You have. I knew it would be your answer. Well, for your favor, sir, why, give God thanks, and make no boast of it, and for your writing and reading, let that appear when there is no need of such vanity. (3.3.13-22)
Dogberry bungles his words throughout all of his lines. That he mistakes writing and reading as a sign of vanity is a good introduction to exactly how Dogberry views the world. To him, being a learned man is a good way to show off how refined you are. He attempts to use grandiose speech to convince everyone that’s he’s a gentleman... even though he doesn’t really have a grasp of the vocabulary he employs. Inadvertently, he is correct; reading and writing are not usually things of vanity, but he employs them vainly, and often in vain. (Wordplay!)
Act IV, Scene i
DON JOHN Sir, they are spoken, and these things are true. (4.1.70)
There’s something to be said about Don John’s language—while everyone else is clearly passionate about the proceedings, and full of words, explanations, and fury—Don John speaks only a single line. His phrase is so simple and forceful that you might almost think it was true—if you didn’t know he was a determined villain.
BEATRICE As strange as the thing I know not. It were as possible for me to say I loved nothing so well as you, But believe me not, and yet I lie not, I confess nothing, nor I deny nothing. I am sorry for my cousin. (4.1.283-287)
Beatrice has just heard Benedick bare his soul. Rather than pouring her heart out to him in return, she stumbles over her words, finally just declaring that she’s worried for Hero. This uneasiness is weird for Beatrice—she usually has a perfect quick and cutting reply for everything. It’s not clear whether she’s unsure of her feelings for Benedick, or is afraid to admit she loves Benedick... or maybe is just really caught up with her cousin’s life being ruined.
Act V, Scene i
DOGBERRY Marry, sir, they have committed false report; moreover, they have spoken untruths; secondarily, they are slanders; sixth and lastly, they have belied a lady; thirdly, they have verified unjust things; and, to conclude, they are lying knaves. (5.1.225-229)
Dogberry’s failure to communicate rests upon his insistence to be overly formal in his speech. He tries to speak in a manner that gives him legitimacy (using the formulas of speech used in court and legal matters). Ironically, his attempts to use formal language undermine his legitimacy. If Dogberry would just speak straight (instead of worrying about his presentation), then the whole confusion leading to Hero’s undoing could’ve been avoided.
Act V, Scene ii
BENEDICK [Sings] The god of love That sits above, And knows me, and knows me, How pitiful I deserve—
I mean in singing. But in loving Leander the good swimmer, Troilus the first employer of panders, and a whole book full of these quondam carpetmongers, whose names yet run smoothly in the even road of a blank verse, why, they were never so truly turned over and over as my poor self in love. Marry, I cannot show it in rhyme. I have tried. I can find out no rhyme to 'lady' but 'baby'—an innocent rhyme; for 'scorn,' 'horn'—a hard rhyme; for 'school', 'fool'—a babbling rhyme: very ominous endings. No, I was not born under a rhyming planet, nor cannot woo in festival terms. (5.2.26-41)
Benedick is poetic in his thinking and speech, but he fails in writing. His references are rich, and all he uses wit to refer to the twisted version of love as presented by epic poetry: Leander was the lover of the mythological Hero (probably the namesake of Leonato’s daughter). Leander died by drowning as he was on his way to see his love, swimming across a river to find her. The story is a twisted version of love, and Benedick warps it further by joking that Leander was a good swimmer.
Benedick jokes that Troilus is pandering to his love, Cressida, but Cressida betrays him by loving another. Benedick specifically uses "panders" as a pun on Pandarus, Cressida’s uncle who originally set the couple up.
Finally, "quondam carpet-mongers" (what???) means knights of the old days who avoided military service. It was joked that they earned their keep by lounging around on the court carpets, rather than fighting on the battlefield. These knights exemplify the definitional shift occurring during this time: once, being a gentleman meant being a great warrior, but the term was slowly changing and coming around to signify one who was versed in the arts of the court, including being a great lover (Remember what Beatrice says about manhood in 4.1.319).
Ultimately, this all means that Benedick thinks that the guys who wrote epic love poetry were wusses, and though their stories have been immortalized by great poems, they didn’t love as deeply as he does. Thus, poetry is nothing when love is true. (Phew!)