In several cases, the romantic relationships in Shakespeare’s plays are shallow, existing only because the plot demands that they exist rather than because the characters in question are actually compatible. In other cases, the relationships remain shallow, but that shallowness serves a greater point about love that he is trying to make. It is somewhat rare, however, for him to give us a romantic pairing that is both complex and believable. Much Ado About Nothing proves to be an exception, however, as the relationship between Benedick and Beatrice contains a level of depth that Shakespeare rarely gives us when portraying romance. He accomplishes this feat by establishing the history between the two, granting the two an equal level of strength and intelligence, and providing realistic reasons for the avoidance and ultimate embracement of their relationship.
The first step towards establishing the relationship between the two occurs in the beginning, when Leonato explains the situation to the messenger: “There is a kind/of merry war betwixt Signor Benedick and her. They never/meet but there’s a skirmish of wit between them.” (1.1 49-51). The line establishes that there is already a personal history between the two, and one with a great amount of tension at that (it is important to note that the “never meet” line indicates that the two are always fighting with each other during their encounters and not that they have actually never met). Shakespeare allows us to imagine that the various complicated feelings the two have for each other have developed over their numerous interactions, instead of forcing us to accept that they are established almost immediately after meeting. When the two encounter each other here, there is an immediate sense of history and complexity in their interactions, as both characters get to display their wit and forceful personalities in opposition to the other. The fact that Beatrice gives Benedick just as much grief as he gives her goes a long way towards putting the two on equal footing and establishes them as a compelling pairing.
Of course, the fact that they both cannot stand the other and seem all too happy to remain single makes it slightly difficult to imagine a romantic relationship at first. But their excessive ranting against the opposite gender and the prospect of marriage brings to mind a quote from a different Shakespeare play: “The lady doth protest too much, methinks.” The enthusiasm that the two show for rebuking the possibility of love and marriage seems indicative of far more complicated feelings on the subject beneath the surface, and those feelings are confirmed when we see their reactions to overhearing of the other’s supposed feelings. Both express a fair amount of excitement over this news, but they temper it by suggesting that their love for the other is purely “in friendly recompense.” (5.4 83). Most Shakespeare characters would simply immediately fall for the other without reservations; here, the feelings at play are much more complex. The roller coaster of emotions that the two experience – from theatrical hatred to claiming to love for the sake of the other – indicates that both are not necessary against the prospect of love, but that they feel a certain amount of trepidation towards attaining the level of vulnerability that comes from pursuing such desires (hence the need to preserve a certain amount of control in the relationship by assigning the feelings to the other). Most Shakespeare characters are all too willing to put themselves in that position, but these two are too headstrong to present themselves as such. It is only when openly encouraged by the other characters and displayed proof of their hypocrisy that they are able to overcome this fear and truly embrace their feelings for one another. And that result is all the more satisfying because of the legitimate personal obstacles that they had to overcome to get there.
Much Ado About Nothing cannot claim to be a perfect play in terms of its romantic relationships, as the Claudio/Hero relationship (a hugely important one to the play’s plot) is guilty of the same shallowness that many of Shakespeare’s pairings are characterized by. It speaks to the quality of the Benedick/Beatrice relationship, however, that that relationship’s flaws do not ultimately hold the play back. Indeed, the complexity on display in the latter pairing makes the play worthwhile all on its own. Benedick and Beatrice truly represent the best of Shakespeare’s romantic relationships, as theirs is one of flawed perfection unlike any other.